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Zombie Attack!

An Introduction to Quantitative Modeling


Kyla Flanagan
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Calgary


Students assume the roles of CDC researchers who must determine how to most effectively stop an impending Zombie apocalypse. The story line leads students through the process of developing a mathematical model of a Zombie outbreak, which they then use to evaluate different "management" strategies to ensure human survival. Students are introduced to a flow diagram, learn how to derive equations from a flow diagram, and evaluate predictions of the model. Comparisons to the spread of invasive species, infectious disease outbreaks, and predator-prey relationships help the students to see how important biological processes can be modeled quantitatively. Since the focal species (zombies) is fictitious, this case is an ideal way to introduce students to the process of mathematical modeling without worrying about the system-specific details of any particular organism. Originally designed for a second year introductory ecology course, this case is also appropriate for an epidemiology course, advanced population ecology courses, applied ecology courses, and quantitative biology/mathematical biology courses.

  • Define a flow diagram, mass action, state variable, and parameter.
  • Use a flow diagram to explain the meaning of the coupled ordinary differential equations describing the rates of change of state variables.
  • Develop and hypothesize links between the zombie model and real biological problems, such as predator-prey interactions, rates of spread of disease, rates of spread of invasive species, etc.
  • Explain the value of using a mathematical model to develop predictions for biological problems and evaluating potential management solutions.
  • Examine the trade-off between complexity and reality in modeling biological problems.
Keywords: Mathematical modeling; invasive species; disease modeling; quantitative modeling; predator-prey; population ecology
Topical Area: Scientific method
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Discussion, Interrupted, Role-Play
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Ecology   Environmental Science   Epidemiology   Mathematics   Medicine (General)   Science (General)  
Date Posted: 9/12/2012
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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GREAT case study to introduce the population equations to my AP bio students! We also were fortunate that we did it on Halloween :) Great way to get them thinking about the equations without actually working problems and how all the variables work together. Thanks for this one! - Jennifer

Jennifer Forsyth
Woodstock HS
Woodstock, GA

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