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Bill Gates' magic boredom-measuring bracelets

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $1.1 million to study the effectiveness of a wristband that tracks a student's level of engagement

Some research suggests that tuning out could be a sign of intelligence. Whether that's true is still up for debate, but the creators behind a new experimental monitoring bracelet called the Galvanic Skin Response monitor (GSR) would rather figure out how to assess student engagement in the classroom to use that information to inform teaching methods. The GSR monitors whether a student is paying attention in class through the electrical signals in his or her skin, and the project has attracted the attention of big-name backers like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $1.1 million to determine if the GSR is useful. Here, a concise guide to the innovation:

How does the bracelet work?The GSR uses the body's natural electricity to measure "emotional arousal," says Edwin Kee at Ubergizmo. Whenever someone gets excited, for example, their "electrodermal activity" shoots up. When they're bored or relaxed, that level goes down. The bracelet, which is still in its early phases, seeks to chart a student's mood while in class. 

How will they test it?The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued two grants to determine if and how the GSR could be used. The first pilot study, set to take place at Clemson University, will "measure student engagement" in a field test to hopefully help teachers develop better lesson plans. (Previous reports suggested that the GSR would be used to evaluate teachers, but the foundation insists that won't be the case.) The second study, which the National Center on Time and Learning will conduct, is meant to develop a measurable scale "that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement," theoretically making it easier to chart a student's level of boredom. 

Couldn't that $1.1 million be spent on more useful things?"Some will speculate whether the $1.1 million that is being dedicated to this research might better be allocated toward buying a few iPads," says Chris Matyszczyk at CNET. (Or whatever the Microsoft version is called.) It's a fair point, but in terms of the GSR's actual effectiveness, there's one thing researchers should bear in mind: "Children are very, very good at cheating." Luisa Kroll at Forbes says: "I, for one, will give Gates the benefit of the doubt." Remember that $1.1 million is  a small amount in the grand scheme of things; in 2010, the Gates' foundation spent $311 million on education. Not to mention Gates "has given more money away than anyone else on the planet." 

Sources: CNET, ForbesUbergizmo, Washington Post (2)

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