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Robot babies give students a lesson in parenthood

Recently, Eyewitness News anchor Todd Kunz saw some teenage girls carrying lifelike dolls. The dolls would even cry and need to be fed. Kunz did some investigating and found it’s part of their schoolwork.

Well, it is a trimester. And yes, you can hear babies crying, a lot of them. But this is a school classroom with high school students and the babies are computers!

“It’s uhm, so close to reality,” said teacher Julie Griggs.

Welcome to the Parenting and Child Development Program at Hillcrest High School in Ammon.

“As they begin to learn about a lot of the decisions that need to be made in order to have a family, it kind of starts opening up their eyes. They didn’t realize there were so many different things to be thinking about it,” said Griggs. She is in her 35th year of teaching. She’s been teaching this class for 26 years. For her students, it all begins with the pregnancy suit.

“And here we go,” said Griggs as she put the 25 pound suit on one student and began to strap her into it.

The suit puts pressure on certain parts of the body to simulate the way a woman’s feels like during a real pregnancy. The person wearing the suit feels bladder pressure and back pain, among other things.

“In here is full of water. It also has a ball that tethered to the bag. And what happens when the student moves, that ball moves, and it simulates the movement of the baby,” said Griggs. “How does it feel?” she asked the student.

“Different,” said student Katelyn Ehnat.

“Good. Looking good. Model for the camera,” replied Griggs, as she laughed.

Ehnat is a junior. She gets to wear the suit to her other classes during the school day.

“Uhm, I think it’s going to be hard to go the whole day, but I should be able to do it,” said Ehnat.

Then comes delivery time.

“Just to see them have that reality hit, ‘Oh my goodness! This baby is mine for the next 72 hours.’ And they’re the sole provider of that baby,” said Griggs.

These babies go home with the students for the weekend. They wear wristbands that they scan to respond to the baby’s needs.

“OK. You ready?” asked Griggs, as she put the wristband on a student.

The babies are expensive minicomputers that record everything.

“It shows here how many times she changed the clothes. It also lets me see how long she had it in the car seat,” said Griggs, pointing to a laptop computer screen.

The minicomputers also recorded number of feedings and what time, even in the middle of the night, and how long the baby fusses or cries before the mother or father pays attention to it.

“Be brave little soldier,” said Griggs to Dean Halverson, who was carrying a car seat as he was leaving the classroom.

“I will,” replied Halverson.

It’s out into the cold cruel world, also known as a high school hallway and beyond into the public for the weekend. And the social judgment is part of the experiment.

“I don’t want to go,” said one female student as she was holding a car seat about to leave the classroom.

“You can do this,” said Griggs, lauging.

“Let’s do this!” said the student, with newfound confidence.

“Spread your wings,” said Griggs.

“Bye!” said the student.

“It is interesting. They want to make sure they’re just doing everything just right,” said Griggs.

Kunz spoke with some students who had already been through the assignment.

“Uh, it was a fun experience because then it makes me really want to wait until I’m completely ready,” said Natalie Anderson, a sophomore.

“You need to be ready for this. Like, it’s a big responsibility. It’s nothing to joke about or anything, you know?” said Ehnat.

“It was actually pretty good and I kind of missed it when I turned it back in, but it was a lot of work, but it was fun,” said Kylee Anderson, a junior.

“When they bring the baby back, it’s a whole new mindset. Sometimes they’re really excited, anticipating the whole adventure. Then, when they bring it back, some kids are devastated of returning their baby because they’ve gotten so close. They’ve actually formed a bond with this baby, but they realize they are not ready to have that baby. It makes them realize that ‘Yes, I would like to have children, but not until much later.’ They have an appreciation for their own families, their parents, their mothers, their fathers. I mean it’s really cool. The line of communication that opens up when the students have this experience is huge, not only with the students and myself, but also with their families and even their friends here at school,” said Griggs.

The parents Kunz spoke with agreed.

“I love this program. I have four kids. I think that kids don’t have any idea what they’re getting into when they bring a baby home, but I think she was totally shocked by how much work they are and getting up every night and how tired she was,” Kayla Ehnat.

As a fun side note, Kunz suggested a random drawing for twins. Eight of Griggs’ 51 students this trimester were willing to give it a try.

“Uh, oh!” said a female student, as two babies in car seats started to make noises.

Kylee Anderson, meet Mia and Lily. They are going home with you for the weekend.

Kunz caught up with Anderson Monday morning.

“I’m going home and taking a big huge nap. I am tired,” she said. “Besides, the nights — that was probably the worst times, because I had no help and it was just like ah! They both screamed at the same time and you’re like scan, scan, and change that one, and change that one and you’re fine. I think it’s a better class to take and have preparation of when you have actual children. And, I have to say, the single one was so much easier than twins,” said Anderson.

Griggs said a few parents are not in favor of the program. One told her it brings up the conversation about becoming a parent before the parent is ready to talk about it. Another feared it promotes teen pregnancy.

Griggs has about 150 students take the class each year, and yes, boys too. The Parenting and Child Development Program is districtwide in the Bonneville School District, so it is available at Bonneville High School as well. Kunz also checked with the Idaho Falls School District and the program is also available in District 91.

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