Modelling Zombies and Other Diseases
Keywords:Computational thinking, modelling, pandemics, visualization, public understanding, outreach
Technocamps1 is a national outreach programme based at Swansea University which - amongst many other things - provides STEM-based workshops to schools and young people. Before 2020, one popular set of Technocamps computational thinking workshops was on modelling the spread of diseases, which for our audience was a zombie infection. These workshops were all unplugged in nature and involved spreading diseases by passing around tokens. Different numbers of tokens were passed about, representing the ability of the disease to spread; and participants might be vaccinated giving them immunity. By changing such factors, the young people could watch how the disease might overcome the class or might die out. These workshops were particularly popular when presented in conjunction with the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures - a series of popular lectures to young people - in December 2019 which were on understanding probability. Little did we know that our workshop series would take on a frighteningly real purpose a few months later. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has been bombarded with messages about how governments were "following the science" and presented with images which "model the spread of the virus" and "track the R-value" in different regions of the world. Independent of our outreach activities, we developed visualization tools for public - and government - understanding of the science which we adapted into our outreach workshops. In this paper, we reflect on the effect of these workshops in explaining to young people the power of computational thinking in modelling diseases, and the extent to which they gained an understanding of this and of the current pandemic.
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