Pitt bioengineers use fictional zombie outbreak to teach teens about viruses | Coronavirus | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pitt bioengineers use fictional zombie outbreak to teach teens about viruses

Jokes comparing the pandemic to a zombie apocalypse are often thrown around, but students and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh took it as a way to teach teens about viral outbreaks.

The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and CampBioE, a science program aimed at middle and high school students, joined forces to create a virtual summer camp that used the movie monsters to demonstrate the more scientific aspects of a pandemic. According to a description on Pitt's Swanson School of Enginering website, the program placed students in Grimmsport, a fictional island where a virus called Zom-B13 has transformed inhabitants into the undead. The students are then tasked with identifying ways to contain and treat the virus.

Now the undergraduate students and faculty behind the summer camp are planning to make it part of a package of activities accessible to middle and high school educators across the country, tentatively scheduled to be released online at the end of this year.

“Every year, we come up with a whole set of new activities, and we just had this back catalog,” says Steven Abramowitch, an associate professor of bioengineering at Pitt who has been directing CampBioE for the last 10 years. “We're finally getting to the point now where we can put that online.”

The mission of CampBioE, he says, is to expose pre-college students to the discipline of bioengineering and the many careers they can pursue in the field. The program also recruits Pitt undergraduate students and gives them training in developing and implementing lesson plans.

Abramowitch says they wanted to use the virtual summer camp as a way to show the realities of controlling viruses and vaccine development, especially given the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 prevention and treatment.

“We knew health literacy is an issue,” says Abramowitch.

But, he says, they also wanted to be sensitive to the fact that many campers, who come from all over the region and the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, have been personally affected by the virus. As they were discussing how to proceed, he says one of his undergrad students had the “brilliant idea” of centering the camp around a zombie virus to make it more “fun and palatable” for a younger audience.

Over the course of four weeks, the camp covered various aspects of controlling outbreaks, including how to identify reliable, trustworthy sources of information for research. Campers designed and made face-mask prototypes from household objects, completed an online scavenger hunt about vaccines, and utilized engineering concepts to solve a series of puzzles that would aid in eliminating the virus.

COVID-19 impacted the summer camp in more ways than one. Abramowitch says their sponsors had to divert much of their funding away from the camp to organizations providing direct support to individuals affected by the outbreak.

“We were left in a position where we had some funds to do some work, but very little to really run the camps as we want to,” says Abramowitch, adding that concerns over safety also prevented them from running the camp in person.

As a result, he says CampBioE teamed up with Investing Now, a college preparatory program aimed at groups who are underrepresented in the STEM fields, and is run through Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. Along with Mascaro, the two groups were able to combine their resources to present the virtual summer camp.

Besides the online activities, Abramowitch plans on developing more virtual educational tools for younger students, including one about Python programming. He is also trying to be optimistic about the next CampBioE.

“Hopefully, the COVID situation will subside and next summer we'll be able to do things in person again,” says Abramowitch.

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