Fake Zombies, Real World Consequences

Biosecurity expert Dr Terri Rebmann

Dr. Terri Rebmann addresses the group at the first Teen Science Cafe.

We are keenly aware of the difficulties faced when trying to engage a young audience while still keeping the scientific content accurate and grounded. This week, Dr. Terri Rebmann and a group of Teen Science Café Youth Leaders made that happen. The topic was the Zombie Apocalypse, intended to draw in an audience of teens interested in both science and science fiction. The topic itself served as a springboard to have an in-depth discussion about issues related to infectious disease and biosecurity.

Teen Science Cafe Zombie Apocalypse Black Light
Using a black light to check exposure levels and see who is infected!

Dr. Rebmann, a biosecurity expert at St. Louis University, led a fun, interactive session on how to protect oneself from infectious disease using the fictitious “Necrocranial reanimatus virus” as a model pathogen. The teens played a Zombie Trivia Game, in which they had to answer questions about real pathogens that cause diseases in different ways--including physical contact, blood, coughing, sneezing, regurgitation, and ingestion of contaminated food.  If they got questions wrong, they got exposed to the “Zombie Virus” simulated using Glo Germ, a powder that glows under a black light. If they answered questions right, they earned protective gear like gloves and masks that helped minimize exposure to the virus. Then each participant observed how much virus they’d been exposed to using black lights. Almost all of them had been exposed to enough Zombie Virus that they would have become mindless Zombies themselves!

The last exercise the teens participated in was to think carefully about what they would do if they only had a limited amount of cure or vaccine available. How would they decide who would get those treatments? What priorities would they use in making those decisions? Many participants said this was their favorite part of the night, when they got to play the role of policy-makers and tackle those tough decisions.

Teen Science Cafe Zombie Apocalypse Debate
Debating how to distribute a limited number of vaccines.

In all, the teens had a blast and they learned a great deal about how to protect themselves from disease and how ethical decisions are made regarding vaccine distribution and treatment.  Yes, Zombies aren’t real. But, they were a fantastic way to bring real science to a teenage audience. 

The Teen Science Café Program will be hosting two more free, public events this spring in March and April – check back at the Saint Louis Science Center website for more information!

The Teen Science Cafe Program is a collaborative effort with the SIUE Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach and the Academy of Science St. Louis. For more information check out the Gateway Teen Science Cafe Network at teencafestl.org. Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Teen Science Cafe Network.

You can view the photo gallery from the Teen Science Cafe: Zombie Apocalypse on our Facebook page!

Written by Beth, Community Science

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