Gates funds wrist sensors for students

BRAIN TEASERS: Bracelets will be used to measure how engaged students are in a classroom.
BRAIN TEASERS: Bracelets will be used to measure how engaged students are in a classroom.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is funding research into using controversial bracelets to measure how engaged students are in a classroom.

About US$1.4 million (NZ$1.8 million) from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been given to US university researchers,* who plan to use the "Q Sensors".

The sensors detect excitement, stress, fear, engagement, boredom and relaxation through the skin.

"Past studies with autistic children have used the bracelets to show those who might seem unresponsive to external stimuli are engaged and learning," Gates Foundation spokeswoman Deborah Robinson said.

But critics said the technology could measure reactions not related to the teaching process.

They argue it places too much emphasis on measurements and allocates funding to the wrong areas of the US education system.

"In high school biology I didn't learn a thing all year, but boy was I stimulated. The girl who sat next to me was gorgeous. Just gorgeous," Arthur Goldstein, a veteran English teacher in New York City who is critical of Gates-funded education reform, told Reuters.

Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University, also criticised the bracelets for perpetuating "measurement mania".

"They should devote more time to improving the substance of what is being taught," she said.


The bracelets send a small current across the skin and measure changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli.

The grant fits in with the Gates Foundation's emphasis on mining daily classroom interactions for data.

The foundation reflects Mr Gates's interest in developing data collection and analysis techniques to predict which teachers and teaching styles will be most effective.

In one scenario, the biosensor bracelets could be used by teachers in real time to determine whether problem-solving using computers or in a traditional classroom setting would be more engaging, Ms Robinson said.

The Gates Foundation spent two years videotaping 20,000 classroom lessons and breaking them down, minute by minute, to analyse how each teacher presents material and how those techniques affected student test scores, Reuters reported.

The foundation also asked 100,000 children around the US detailed questions about their teachers. Did they give students time to explain their ideas? Did they summarise the lesson at the end of class? That data, again, would be correlated with test scores to try to identify the most effective teaching styles.

The foundation spent US$45 million on such research under the umbrella name Measures of Effective Teaching.

But Ms Robinson stressed that the bracelets would not be used to evaluate teachers' performance.

The trial, she added, was only for about 100 students and it was "still pretty early to say" what its long-term impact could be.

"So right now, it's not even in any classroom yet. So not a single application has started yet."

*US$500,000 in funding was allocated to Clemson University, US$620,000 for Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist John Gabrieli and US$280,000 for Columbia University's Ryan Baker.