It’s not uncommon to see youngsters toting around smartphones, iPods and other electronic devices. However, the proximity sensors currently dangling from the necks of Borland Manor Elementary School students are more than just hi-tech toys.
These devices – called “motes” – will help researchers from the University of Pittsburgh learn more about how influenza spreads as children come in contact with each other through the day, and if school closures can help slow such epidemics.
The research at Borland Manor is part of the “Social Mixing and Respiratory Transmission in Schools” study, which is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the aim of creating a national policy on school response to flu pandemics.
“You think, ‘Every mom knows how kids spread diseases,’ and that’s true, except they don’t really know in a sort of rigorous, scientific way,” said Chuck Vukotich Jr., a senior project manager at Pitt’s graduate school of public health who is overseeing the research. “What we’re trying to do is to quantify the contacts between children.”
The battery-powered motes, which weigh about three ounces and are worn on lanyards, gather data by sending out a signal every 20 seconds to seek out other sensors in the area and record when one is detected. The data are then used by researchers to determine how often kids come in contact with each other. Vukotich said they are focusing on contact within a three-meter range.
Currently, about 4,000 students across 10 schools are participating in the study, including seven schools from Canon-McMillan School District and three from Propel Charter Schools in the Pittsburgh area.
At Borland Manor as well as North Strabane Intermediate, the students began wearing the devices Monday morning and will keep them on until Wednesday afternoon, including all day today while they are off from school for Election Day.
Vukotich expected the sensors to collect a million data points Monday alone.
Vukotich explained this is the first time the motes will ever be used outside of the school setting, which he called a major leap forward.
“This may be the single most important set of data we’re going to collect in this whole project,” Vukotich said.
Vukotich said schoolchildren often are at the center of spreading diseases, likening school buildings to cauldrons that mix up diseases and transfer them back into the community.
“We know that children can drive influenza outbreaks, but we don’t know how or why,” said Dr. Shanta Zimmer, one of the Pitt professors heading up the study.
Last year, the project determined the average student has 108 unique contacts per day, Vukotich said.
Borland Manor Elementary Principal Marella Kazos said the district is blessed to be able to partner with researchers and the university to work together in the best interest of children.
“All anyone wants is for their kids to be healthy, happy and come to school and learn,” she said.
Kazos said she never dreamed her school would have the opportunity to be part of a study with implications for children across the globe, not just here at home.
Vukotich said the data they collect have a broad applicability and could be used to study any diseases that spread from person to person through contact. He said related CDC studies also are taking place at Pennsylvania State University and a school in Utah, but the overnight use of motes is unique to Pitt’s research.
As for the kids donning these devices, fourth-grader Zane Freund said he and his classmates thought the motes were pretty cool.
Despite the beeper-like size, he said wearing the mote didn’t bother him.
“I just think of it like a gigantic lunch tag,” Freund said.
Fellow fourth-grader Delaney Lewis said she also was excited when she learned about the study. She recalled her own experience with the flu and said it was terrible because she loves school and doesn’t like to miss it.