Zombies may scare college students, but apparently there's something far more frightening — differential equations.
Now UC Irvine is hoping that a hit show about a zombie apocalypse can make higher learning about advanced mathematics and other serious academic subjects more palatable.
The university and basic cable's AMC network are teaming up to offer a free online course titled "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC's 'The Walking Dead'" timed to the airing of the show's fourth season this fall.
The eight-week course — which begins Oct. 14, the day after the premiere — will feature lectures from four instructors across a range of disciplines: public health, social science, physics and mathematics.
The university believes the experiment in the multidisciplinary course will be its largest MOOC (massive open online course) ever. MOOCs, a growing model of online education and a term used in academia since roughly 2008, open up higher education to students from all around the world.
"We're expecting hundreds of thousands to enroll in this," said Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning at UCI. "There's a lot of 'Walking Dead' fans."
AMC's "The Walking Dead" trampled over all its competitors last season, becoming the first show in cable history to outperform the major networks in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic in scripted programming. The show about a band of survivors during a mysterious zombie pandemic averaged a whopping 11.4 million viewers per episode last year.
This isn't the first time a UC school has built a course around a television show. UC Berkeley, for example, has offered liberal arts courses tied to AMC's Madison Avenue drama "Mad Men," NBC's sitcom "Seinfeld" and even Fox's animated comedy "The Simpsons."
But in the rapidly expanding world of online education, the new UC Irvine course marks one of the first times that one has been developed so closely with an entertainment property and a network.
One of the Web's biggest MOOCs is a basic course in computer science offered by online provider Udacity and Stanford University. The class hit an enrollment of more than 314,000 students earlier this summer. UC Irvine's largest MOOC to date is a personal finance course that drew 95,000 students.
UC Irvine mathematics professor Sarah Eichhorn, who plans to use her subject of expertise to model how the "walker" disease would behave as it propagates, is thrilled at the prospect of reaching a much wider student audience.
"People think math is a very daunting and scary subject, and hopefully tying them into zombies might make it more appealing," she said.
Other topics will include the role of nutrition in determining behavior, what nutrition options would look like in a post-apocalyptic world, personality stereotypes in society and what modern materials would be needed to rebuild society.
Each week the class will feature 20 minutes of a pre-recorded lecture, a quiz, professor-moderated discussion boards, an essay question and exclusive video interviews with members of the cast answering questions posed by the instructors. There will be required reading too, but the course doesn't include college credit or count toward graduation requirements.
Students can sign up for the course at http://www.canvas.net/TWD.
Though instructors haven't seen the upcoming season, they have been given an order of topics from AMC that will best play off of the weekly events in the show. The course's instructors plan to meet up each week to watch the new show and discuss how they will incorporate the latest developments into their lesson plans.
In catching up on the first three seasons of the show, Eichhorn admitted: "It's the first time I've watched a show like this with a notebook ready."
Loble points out there is no monetary arrangement between UC Irvine, AMC or Instructure, the company providing the online platform for the course. Instead, the course is funded entirely through the university's profitable extension division.
And though there will be participation from "Walking Dead" cast members, the course isn't just an eight-week electronic press kit.
"The actual content that our faculty is presenting is content from campus courses," Loble said. "We know there's academic richness in their foundation."
Still, a course about a zombie apocalypse is certain to raise unfamiliar conversations for its instructors and the class.
"One parameter that's obvious when it comes to halting the spread of the disease is that humans get better at killing the zombies," said Eichhorn. "When we talk about the spread of a disease, we don't normally talk about how fast we can kill the people with the disease."Copyright © 2015, RedEye