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Baby dolls equipped to give students a realistic experience

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GREENFIELD — When Brittaney Hamilton signed up for Greenfield-Central High School’s parenting class, she felt sure she was ready to take on the role of pretend mom.

Each year, the chance to take home a lifelike baby doll is a highlight of the course.

Using simulator dolls in parenting classes has been going on for years, but with advances in technology, students today are getting an exceptionally realistic experience – and losing the ability to cheat their way through the project.

Last year, Greenfield-Central purchased brand new RealCare Infant Simulators, which cost about $1,000 each, with grant money from the Hancock Regional Hospital Foundation.

The dolls are 7.5 pounds of high-tech equipment, carrying a multitude of sensors that measure the caregiver’s performance on tasks including feeding; burping; and outfit and diaper changes. Students are scored on how well and how quickly they respond to the doll’s cries and whimpers, which differ based on what is needed and occur around the clock.

All mistakes – leaving the doll, unattended; in its car seat too long; tilting it awkwardly; or exposing it to heat or cold, for example – are recorded.

For Brittaney, 17, the program’s attention to detail came as a rude awakening.

Brittaney, a senior, said she didn’t realize just how sensitive those sensors were when she took home the doll for the weekend – nor did she give a friend she allowed to “babysit” proper instructions on the doll’s care.

It was a decision she came to regret when the doll stopped working.

“I was really worried because I didn’t know what was wrong because I knew it should have been crying more than it was, so I was pretty nervous,” she said.

Just as a new mother might, Brittaney started to panic when she realized the baby’s behavior had completely changed. She contacted Michelle Overman, one of G-C’s family and consumer sciences teachers, who assured her it was likely a computer glitch they could fix in the morning.

But the printout submitted wirelessly from the doll to Overman’s computer told a different story.

As it turned out, the doll had shut down after the program deemed it was being mistreated.

Unlike parenting dolls with stationary necks, the infant simulator has a weight in its head, and the neck is on a hinge.

Once the neck drops 24 times, the system automatically fails the student and disengages the doll.

“It’s considered an abuse shutdown,” Overman said.

As a result, Brittaney’s progress report showed a negative 75 percent.

“I think it was just a combination of too many people holding the baby,” she said. “I didn’t realize how fragile the head actually was.”

Kara Purvis, 17, a senior, said she understands how new parents can become overwhelmed when they don’t know what their baby wants.

The screams and cries that came in the middle of the night were especially hard, she said.

Tuesday, the class celebrated the conclusion of the unit with a pitch-in and mock baby shower. Students brought in gifts for one of their peers, who wore a bodysuit called the Empathy Belly, which is meant to mimic pregnancy.

By the end of the class, senior Taylor Glover, 17, was ready to be free of the excess weight.

“I don’t feel like my ribcage is opening at all,” she said.

The baby gifts are being donated to Life Choices, the former Pregnancy Care Center, in Greenfield.

While students’ experiences with the dolls vary, Overman has come to expect surprise from those who find the project a little more taxing than expected.

“Then, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I don’t want that baby,’” she said, “or they come back and say, ‘I’m not gonna have that baby for a long time.”

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