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How to Handle a Zombie Outbreak

Swanson School undergrads teach pre-college students how to use engineering concepts to navigate a viral zombie outbreak in their virtual summer camp

In the middle of the Atlantic lies Grimmsport, a fictional island that has identified an outbreak of Zom-B13 which turns the island residents into mindless zombies.

This thinly veiled theme for the 2020 Summer with Swanson camp helped teach high school students about the scientific aspects of a pandemic. The University of Pittsburgh’s CampBioE and Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation joined efforts to create a virtual camp that served underrepresented pre-college students in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Investing Now program.  

The students’ mission was to contain and treat the zombie outbreak, and the first step was to mitigate the spread.

“We discussed the importance of a mask and its ability to help filter cleaner air for individuals to breathe,” said Ankith Rao (BioE ‘21). “They learned about human factors in product development and how to create a mask for a universal user. The students then sketched designs and physically prototyped masks with objects from around the house.”

With a protective measure in hand, the students then learned how to research reliable information on the outbreak. The camp counselors demonstrated the CRAP test to help students consider four critical areas in identifying a trustworthy source: currency, reliability, authority and purpose. They used these new skills to complete an online scavenger hunt to learn more about vaccines.

As part of the overall theme, the students also had to use engineering concepts to solve a series of puzzles that would aid in eliminating the virus.

“In one of our modules, the students intercepted an email from zombie island, but they first had to learn how to use ASCII code to translate a clue that was coded in binary notation,” said Lucy Kress (BioE ‘21). 

One of the other clues included a circuit with a hidden DNA sequence to decode.

“Students used software to figure out the protein sequence of the DNA, which was subsequently used to create a 3D model of the protein that served as the antigen for the vaccine,” said Pooja Chawla (BioE ‘22). “They then participated in a detailed virtual lab that demonstrated how vaccines are made.” 

After gaining a better understanding of how vaccines are developed, the students put their efforts toward creating a way to figure out who is infected. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology can rapidly detect viral DNA using primers – short, single-stranded DNA sequences that are specific to the disease.

“Any time there is a new virus, you have to be able to identify if a person has been infected,” said Patricia Donehue, a Pitt biological sciences alumna. “We designed primers and introduced the students to PCR and gel electrophoresis as one means of identifying infection. They applied this technique to the clues to discover who may have been exposed to the disease.” 

The group also used artificial intelligence to set up a classifier that could identify if a face was human or zombie. In this exercise, they demonstrated bias in AI and discussed its implications in modern technology.

Finally, the students learned about the pathology of the virus through a series of escape rooms that represented different stages of infection.

“Each room had a patient chart with symptoms, and they used a website with a human anatomy model to solve the clues and figure out who was infected,” said Garima Patel (BioE ‘22). 

In the end, the students successfully created a vaccine, treated the population, and eradicated the zombie outbreak at Grimmsport.

While the overall feedback for Summer with Swanson was positive, the counselors encountered a variety of obstacles along the way. Many of the issues involved access to technology and an internet connection.

“Some students only had access to phones and tablets while others were limited by website restrictions on their school’s technology,” said Donehue. “Adaptability was an important aspect of this year’s camp. We had to make sure that the students were able to participate in each of the activities, regardless of what technology was available.” 

The Department of Bioengineering’s CampBioE, like many other programs, had to reframe their curriculum to adapt to coronavirus restrictions. The changes were challenging in many ways, but the solutions also opened new doors.

“While the need to do everything virtually created some significant barriers, it also broke down some barriers,” said Steven Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering at Pitt and director of CampBioE. “Physical distance was no longer a factor, which allowed us to extend our programming out-of-state and reach audiences that would not have been able to participate otherwise.”

The group plans to eventually package their activities on their website so that middle and high school educators across the nation can continue to “inspire tomorrow’s engineers.” 

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This effort was supported by funding from the Wilke Foundation, Phillips, Len and Ann Berenfield, and the Swanson School of Engineering Office of Diversity.

Contact: Leah Russell