CEE Students Train to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

Reimagined introductory course puts a new spin on environmental engineering

By Ken Kingery

Freshman and sophomores at Duke University are getting a crash course in surviving the zombie apocalypse and learning a lot about environmental engineering along the way.

“Society has become disconnected from the sources that fill its basic needs like food, water, air and energy,” explained David Schaad, professor of the practice of civil and environmental engineering at Duke. “Environmental engineers spend their careers worrying about these vital needs every day. And when you think about it, surviving a zombie apocalypse touches on a lot of the same basic concepts.”

Zombie Apocalypse 101 is better known in the Duke coursebook as CEE 160L(24L): Introduction to Environmental Engineering and Science. In the first iteration of its new theme, the class tackles four of the basic needs everybody has to survive: air, water, food and energy.

The first challenge facing the students this year was building an Improvised Breathing-Zone Particulate Barrier (IBPB) that can filter out any harmful airborne particles, including any potential “zombie-causing particles” that might be in the air. Each team’s mask was evaluated based on its design rationale, designated filtration process and filtering effectiveness. To make the challenge more interesting, the mask had to remain snug to the face and keep a firm seal while the wearer is working in the field, cooking on a stove or out on a zombie-slaying mission.

“For the aerobic challenge, we were going to have the students just run in place, but then two graduate students we were working with, Karoline Johnson and Heidi Vreeland, suggested it would be more fun if the students in the class had to run up to a ‘zombie head’ and knock it off a platform,” said Schaad.

“The World Health Organization’s newest air quality model suggests that 92 percent of the world’s population lives in places where the air quality does not meet the organization’s standards,” said Mike Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke, who helped create the challenge. “And air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk, claiming one in eight lives globally due to heart disease, stroke, respiratory illness and cancer. So dealing with air filtration is something environmental engineers work with all the time.”

This year’s students still face obstacles of treating contaminated water, building a hydraulic elevator or water-pressure lift, and fabricating a solar thermal water heater. But according to Schaad, the class is still evolving, and will be renamed “Engineering the Planet” next semester while featuring different challenges.

Besides building an air or water filter and a hydraulic elevator or water-pressure lift, students interested in the class next semester will also have to design and construct a structural support system and engineer a new “tenting” system for equitably allocating slots in the infamous Krzyzewskiville.

“When you think about it, tenting is really a systems optimization problem,” said Schaad. “You have to worry about managing supply and demand, by weighting or incentivizing different ‘routes’ to joining the line into Cameron. All of these ‘design challenges’ replicate actual projects the students may encounter in their professional careers, with the likely exception of encountering an actual zombie.”

water flow measurements