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Students learn from infant simulators

West Fargo High School junior Chelsea Gentzkow holds an electronic doll used to teach students about the demands of childcare. Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Thanks to the generous donations of the West Fargo Exchange Club, students enrolled in Child Development and Parenting classes at West Fargo High School and the Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center have the opportunity to learn how to care for newborn infants through the use of lifelike electronic dolls. The computerized dolls, created by Realityworks, are simulated to cry if they are hungry, need a diaper change, need to be burped, or even if they are colicky or fussy. And just like a real baby, the crying doesn't stop until their needs are met.

Students sign a contract promising to care for the Real Care Babies before being assigned to take a doll home over the weekend. They are allowed to leave the baby in the care of a trusted babysitter for up to a total of four hours over the course of the weekend. Students wear wireless wristband IDs programmed to only recognize the main caregiver or a designated babysitter. Computerized software keeps track of every time the baby cries, and students are responsible for determining what the baby needs. The simulators are programmed to be able to recognize if the designated student is neglecting the infant, and will automatically shut down if the baby is left to cry longer than 12 hours or if the baby is shaken.

Part of the mission of the Realityworks Real Care Baby program is to give students knowledge to help prevent child abuse. A new Shaken Baby Syndrome Simulator for instructors has a clear cut-away view of an infant's brain that lights up if the baby is shaken hard enough to incur brain damage. Students are able to see damaged areas light up as damage progresses across the brain, helping them to realize how vulnerable a newborn's tender skull and developing brain is.

RealityWorks classroom handouts identify three levels of brain injury caused by shaken baby syndrome. At the first level of forceful shaking severe enough to cause injury, the back portion of the infant simulator's brain will light up. At this level, babies could become blind or visually impaired. At level two, the front of the simulator's brain lights up. Loss of memory and emotion could occur at this level, capable of leading to learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. At level three, the sides of the simulator's brain, and the front and back lobes, all light up. Brain injury would be extensive, and the baby could lose the ability to speak and hear, and could become paralyzed on both sides. This level is so severe that it could cause death.

According to Kathryn Stangeland, Child Care Services instructor at West Fargo High School, the Real Life Babies cost over $600 each. Over the past several years, the West Fargo Exchange Club has helped purchase a total of eight dolls for the district, four used at the high school in Stangeland's Child Development and Parenting class, and four used by Mary Anderson's classes at the Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center.

Each year, the West Fargo Exchange Club sponsors a wide array of programs and projects, sharing ideas and working together to make our community a better place to live. One of its biggest annual campaigns, in conjunction with the National Exchange Club Foundation, is their Child Abuse Prevention project. The NEC Foundation coordinates a network of Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Centers across the nation.