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'Walking Dead' 101: How You Can Take a Free College Course on the Hit AMC Drama

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It's got heroes, it's got action, it's got drama, life, death, romance, and crazy men who wear eye patches and spend their evenings staring at the zombie heads they've collected in their fish tanks. Well, OK, that's just one guy. But even if all the aforementioned are more than enough reasons to love "The Walking Dead," it turns out there's a whole deeper level of the show that can shed light on many academic topics.

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Opening today for registration to any "Dead" fan around the globe, "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC's 'The Walking Dead'" is an eight-week MOOC (massive open online course) that will use examples from the TV show to teach participants about such subject matter as public health during a pandemic; race and gender dynamics and survival-of-the-fittest concerns; nutrition and stress management in very stressful situations; the science of hope; and statistical models that predict survival or extinction of a species during a pandemic.

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The prison under attack in "The Walking Dead" Season 3 finale, "Welcome to the Tombs."

Yes, they're even managing to work some math into "The Walking Dead."

The "WD" course is a joint effort of AMC, UC Irvine, and Instructure, and though not the first of its kind — Instructure offered a MOOC called "Gender Through Comic Books" earlier this year, in which comic books were the textbooks — "Society, Science, Survival" is the first MOOC where hundreds of thousands of students are expected to participate in an official TV network-approved college course.

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"I teach undergraduates 18 to 23 years old. I absolutely cannot present any kind of a class of theories that are 200 or 300 years old without pop culture," says UC Irvine professor Joanne Christopherson, who will teach social science issues in the "WD" course. "They look at me like, 'What does this have to do with my life?' I absolutely have to bring in pop culture articles, news, TV, magazines, art. I'm very excited to have something like ['The Walking Dead'], a one-source [property], one that's so rich in material and topics."

A new lesson — called a module — will launch the Monday after new "Walking Dead" Season 4 episodes, which premiere on Oct. 13. The class format consists of lectures in the areas of social science, public health, astronomy, physics, and mathematics, using examples from throughout the first three seasons of the series. Each module will include video clips from the show, class discussions, ancillary readings (which will be provided to students), and even, the organizers hope, interviews with "Walking Dead" cast members.

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There will also be a quiz each week so participants can gauge their progress in the class. The course offers no college credit, but, bonus: It means you can legitimately tell people not to bother you during "The Walking Dead" on Sunday nights, because you're studying.

"I'm a social scientist, so I'm really interested in the people and what's going on with them," Christopherson tells Yahoo TV. "I'm going to give a module about social hierarchy and needs, about how we get our needs met, what happens when we are under threat, and how those facts change our mindset about what's important. I'm also going to have a module on how societies are organized. We have different theorists who have proposed ways of us living together, and what happens when we're under threat. I also have a module on social identity, and roles, and stereotyping, and how being under threat also affects how those change.

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"Basically, I'll introduce academic content and then, toward the end, I'll relate it to what's happening with the characters in the show, as far as being threatened from the outside and from within, and how that changes some of the ways people behave."

Adds Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning at UC Irvine, "In [the] physics area, we have a module that's going to deal with energy and momentum in creating damage or protecting yourself from damage. [Our professors] even did some research around whether some of the physics, particularly the weaponry, in the show could be real, and found it to be quite true. Our mathematician and our scientist were impressed with how the physics and the science in the show have been quite real and could actually really happen in this kind of situation."

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In other words, just like you've been telling people for several years now, "The Walking Dead" is a show about zombies, but it's also about so much more.

"This really, when you get right down to it, is about experimentation. It's about trying new models and new approaches to see if we can improve the learning experience and find new solutions to old problems," says Brian Whitmer, Instructure co-founder. "That's what [Instructure] has tried to do from the get-go, experiment with different-size courses, different models. ... The experiment this time, or the goal this time, was to focus specifically on the engagement aspect.

"We said, if we can find a topic that is timely and modern and that people really relate to, it should be able to improve the educational experience. 'The Walking Dead' came up very quickly, from a lot of different people. There was a lot of excitement about it. We reached out to AMC and they said, 'That sounds awesome. We would love to be involved in something like that. We think it would be great as a way to improve engagement for our existing viewer base.' We reached out to UCI, who loves experimentation and has been working in the MOOC space as well. The whole thing came together very quickly.

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"Though it remains to be seen whether or not "The Walking Dead" is powerful enough to make even the most nonmathematically inclined of its fanbase embrace statistical models, preparing the course has already turned the UC Irvine professors — some of whom had not watched the whole series until they began preparing for the course — into zombie lovers.

"It's been fun working with the faculty on this," Loble says. "We're going to have a release party the night of the Season 4 premiere. Everybody's coming over, and we're all going to really enjoy it, because we have all become big fans of the show now. We're all going to enjoy watching the season together."

"Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC's 'The Walking Dead'" begins Oct. 14, and zombie scholars can register for the course, beginning today, at canvas.net/twd.

"The Walking Dead" returns Sunday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m., followed by the season premiere of "The Talking Dead." The second half of both seasons is slated to resume in February 2014.

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