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'Chipping' our kids: Can we fight truancy with technology?

Can technology keep kids from skipping school? In San Antonio, they're going to track children with the same microchips used for cattle, or boxes in a Walmart warehouse.

Technology can do a lot of things...can it keep kids from skipping school? In San Antonio, they're going to track children with the same microchips used for cattle, or boxes in a Walmart warehouse: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). In the fall, San Antonio's Northside Independent School District will outfit more than 6,000 students in a middle school and a high school with RFID chips, as a pilot for a district-wide program.

“If they're not in their chair when roll is taken, we need to find them,” says district spokesman Pascual Gonzales. “The state will not give us money for that child to support that school if they're absent from school...We have got to maximize every revenue stream we can.”

“But the most important reason is in the case of an emergency. We've got to know who is where in that school at all times. And that's the expectation from our parents: You better know where my kid is when I drop him off in the morning and I want you to know where he is all day long at school.”

Gonzales says the school will be outfitted with a hundred or more RFID “readers.” As students walk by a reader, it will register his or her location. If a student is not where they ought to be, are they in the bathroom? Nurse’s office? Or nowhere on campus?

“In our high schools we have 200 digital cameras,” says Gonzales. “You don't go anywhere in a school without being on-camera. Now the important thing to keep in mind and for the public is that this technology doesn't extend beyond the walls of the school. We don't care if they're at McDonalds at night. That's not our problem or issue. But we do want to know between 8 and 4:00 where they are in our schools.”

Gonzales says the chips only contain a student's name, picture, and a student ID number. But civil liberties groups have attacked previous experiments with RFID in schools -- for violating students' right to privacy, and possibly compromising their security if the system is hacked. Gonzales says the system is not an undue invasion of privacy, adding that “privacy is all well and good until we can't find your kid in school in an emergency.”

Alexei Czeskis studies RFID privacy issues at the University of Washington's Security and Privacy Research Lab. He says it's hard to predict the consequences of collecting all this data on our children.

“We don't know what it could be used for in the future,” he says, “and that could be something good or it could be something really bad. For example, maybe it's foreseeable that when these students apply to college for admission, colleges might be able to request this type of data. Those kinds of things could have implications for students further on in their lives.”

Critics also point out the obvious: kids who want to skip school are going to skip school. Never underestimate the power of the young to master a new technology.


Maybe you had a chemistry set when you were a kid. Or a crystal-growing kit. Or Sea-Monkeys.

But this is 2012. And so we have do-it-yourself neuroscience from a startup called Backyard Brains. The idea is essentially that kids can learn about neurons and synapses with their device, called a SpikerBox... and defenseless creatures from your backyard.

Or cockroaches, which I guess are the ideal subject:

You hook up your electrodes and check out how the leg responds to different stimuli. Like make it bounce to a hip-hop beat (see 1:50 in the above video.) Advanced users can get out the glue gun and make a remote-controlled RoboRoach.

This is no hoax. These guys were at TED this year.

One way to look at this is that the age-old traditition of kids pulling body parts off of bugs has finally gotten the high-tech update nobody has been waiting for.

Another is that experiments that are par for the course in Biology 101 are now available to anybody thanks to open-source technology.

Whaddaya think?

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.
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I am the co-founder of Backyard Brains, and a big fan of Marketwatch. I have been a listener for many, many years, so it was a big thrill that you mentioned Backyard Brains in your piece on Friday. But I think you were somewhat missing the point of our organization, and had misspoken about our mission. In your report you stated that:

"One way to look at this is that the age-old tradition of kids pulling body parts off of bugs has finally gotten the high-tech update nobody has been waiting for. Another is that experiments that are par for the course in Biology 101 are now available to anybody thanks to open-source technology."

I actually didn't mind that you sensationalized the method of our experiments (however, I did wish you would have talked more about the spikes that were recorded afterwards). But I understand that this comes with the territory. We are a bit edgy pushing animal experiments in an environment moving in the opposite direction.

What I did have a problem with was the statement that this could be done in a Biology 101 (presumably a university) course. The reasons why backyard brains exists is that not even university undergrads had the ability to do neuroscience experiments. Until we started selling products 2 years ago, the only way to do neuroscience was to get a Ph.D. in it. That seems a shame when 20% of the population will be diagnosed with a neurological affliction. It is interesting to note that over 2/3 of our gear goes to undergraduate and graduate universities, the next biggest customer is high schools, then amateurs (See the graph at http://finance.backyardbrains.com).

Our recent interview with Scientific American this month (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=science-kit-watch-neur...) goes into the struggle we have with the state of neuroscience education in the USA today. I hope that the next time that you file a report on us, you could reach out and talk to us beforehand.

Regards,

Greg

--
Gregory Gage, Ph.D.
Backyard Brains, Inc.
gagegreg@backyardbrains.com
mob: (734) 968-7570
TED talk: http://on.ted.com/Gage
PLoS One: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0030837
Neuroscience for Everyone!

I'd like to see students using the Backyard Brains kit to implant the RFID tracking tags into cockroaches so the school district can track the roaches' movements.

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