Zombies teach nursing students about public health

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published July 7, 2016

Key Takeaways

Students in a nurse practitioner doctorate program are learning about public health in an unconventional way—through a zombie outbreak.

As part of their degree requirement, graduate nursing students in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, MD, must take a Population Health course.

USU is the health services university for the federal government, and students are active-duty members of the military. So it’s necessary that they know about responding to the overall health of a population, whether it’s a group of employees, a community, an entire nation—or, in this case, the survivors of a fictional zombie attack.

“We use the narrative device of a zombie pandemic in animations and assignments to help engage students in content,” explained Catherine Ling, PhD, FNP-BC, Assistant Professor for the DNP and PhD programs at USU’s Daniel K. Inouye Graduate School of Nursing.

In other words, the students become more “dead-icated” to learning.

The students watch video clips of different scenarios in which they see the impact that a zombie virus has made on a population. The scenarios reinforce the course’s educational material by requiring students to implement various strategies that shape population health planning and interventions. As members of a fictitious Department of Defense (DoD) division, the students enact a quarantine, administer widespread vaccines, and obtain international resources, Dr. Ling explained.

Students must even follow actual DoD guidelines when responding to the growing zombie pandemic.

The course is meant to provide students with an understanding of the basic skills in population health. This knowledge is necessary not only for virtual zombie outbreaks but for real-world crises, such as emerging infectious diseases and pandemics like Ebola and Zika, Dr. Ling explained.

“A lot of our students have been to humanitarian missions and have been foreign deployed,” Dr. Ling said. “Two to three months afterwards, I get them coming back and they say, ‘Oh, it applied here in this situation when I was out on this exercise,’ or ‘I was talking with somebody and I can see where this came into play.’ We're continually getting that kind of positive reinforcement from the students.”

For her efforts with the online program, Dr. Ling won the prestigious Teaching With Sakai Innovation Award in 2015.

That’s a switch—zombies are typically known for eating brains; but for this course, they expand them.

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