Malibu High School students get a dose of reality

Realityworks RealCare(r)Baby II comes with a choice in gender and ethnic group. The babies are used as an educational tool.

Students learn what the responsibility of caring for an infant entails-through a computerized baby.

By Leah Barta/Special to The Malibu Times

For the past school year, students at Malibu High School have experienced a dose of reality-even if it’s only for one weekend. In Andy Meier’s psychology class, students take a computerized baby home for one weekend to learn what it’s really like to take care of a small infant. The students take the baby home on Friday, and are responsible for its care until the end of the day on Monday. The baby, manufactured by Realityworks, comes with a package that allows Meier to grade the students based on several criteria that must be met over the weekend. The baby’s head must be supported at all times, the students must respond within two minutes if the baby starts crying, the baby must be fed, burped, rocked, held correctly and its diapers changed. Once the baby starts crying, the student must determine which task needs to be performed in order to make the baby stop, and this reaction time is recorded and graded as well.

In the past, Meier used a raw egg, which the students were supposed to watch at all times and bring back to class in one piece. After the project was completed, Meier and his class discussed how the week went, and everyone agreed on the fact that a raw egg simply isn’t realistic enough to really get an understanding of the responsibility that an infant carries. Meier had heard of other classrooms using computerized babies, and decided to get with the times. After receiving a grant from the PTSA, Meier purchased one baby and then another (just last month), and began using them this school year. One baby costs $449, and a package of 10 with accessories, including diapers, bottles, IDs, birth certificates and manuals, costs $3,382. The babies are available in five ethnic groups, with six skin tones.

Of the students’ reactions this year, Meier says, “Most of them are surprised at how much work it really is, which is pretty much the purpose of this. This is to show them that to have a child is a big responsibility-it’s not all fun and games.”

Students who have completed the assignment are getting the picture. Christopher Callahan, the first student to take the baby home this semester, described his experience: “I really wanted to do it at first, but during the weekend it got frustrating-I was really glad to turn it in on Monday.” Callahan learned that “even though it wasn’t real, it still takes up a lot of your time, and it’s just a lot of extra responsibilities.” He said other students have had similar reactions. “It seems cool, at first, but when you actually have it, it frustrates you out of your mind,” he said. “You just want to throw it across the room.” Overall, Callahan agreed with Meier’s decision to upgrade from the egg. “I think it’s better than an egg. I think it’s a good way of teaching us.”

The use of computerized babies in the classroom has become fairly widespread, with Realityworks estimating that between 5,000 and 10,000 high schools in the United States are participating in their “Baby Think It Over” program. In addition to the actual baby, the program includes grading criteria to help instructors use the product. Carol Lambert, a representative of Realityworks, describes the overarching response to their program as “Very positive-99.9 percent of the reactions that we hear are very positive, and that would come from students, from teachers, from parents. Overall they’re saying it’s a really great experience for kids, very realistic, and it really helps teach them what it would be like to be a parent.”

In response to consumer feedback, Realityworks has already updated their technology from the model Meier uses. The baby is wireless and students wear an electronic ID wristband that helps the baby detect their presence. “We found ways to help the teachers save time because it’s a quicker and easier program,” Lambert explained.