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Tri-Valley innovation: Counting who's here, with ease and accuracy

Attendance tracking technology earns Foothill alum team Dreammakers and Risktakers Award

During their junior year at Foothill High School, Logan Dickey and his classmates were frustrated in their engineering class.

Their regular teacher was out on paternity leave and they had a new substitute every day. That meant the simple act of taking attendance was taking up to 20 minutes of a 50-minute class. They wanted to learn engineering, not waste time as the sub scanned each student identification card.

That sent them in search of a solution -- what's more, the attendance rolls were not accurate; Dickey was marked absent five times, prompting calls to his mother.

Setting out to solve the problem, their team developed a "rudimentary way" to take attendance more quickly and accurately. Dickey and teammates Vishal Mutharaja, Premkumar Giridhar, Kishore Hariharan, Tarun Prakash and Jacob Bolano had skills in mechanical engineering, computer science and social science.

Now, nearly three years later and recipients of a Dreammakers and Risktakers Award from Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group last month, they have a sophisticated system and the question is whether to pursue it as a business.

The team graduated from Foothill and have scattered to universities across the country. Dickey just finished up his second year as a computer science and business major at the University of California at Berkeley. The question he and his partners will strive to resolve: what's next for Nize.

Taking attendance accurately is critical for school districts because state funding is based on average daily attendance. Each school's attendance is uploaded daily to both the school district's servers and to the state's.

Dickey and his team have made a good business case already for their system. They figure a school would save about $144,000 with their system. He cited the example of the Falcon Flex, a 40-minute period every Wednesday where students can pursue whatever they want wherever they want on campus after signing up. Taking attendance was a nightmare, both for the individual teachers who may not know the students in their classroom that day and for the teacher who received all the data and then had to upload it.

Foothill principal Sebastian Bull wrote in an email, "Logan and Tarun and their team were remarkable! They came to us initially with an idea that they had created in their engineering class, taught by Gary Johnson. Their idea was in response to a need to figure out how to track the movement of students during the school day during our 'Access' period when students move to see different teachers to get extra help during the school day."

The principal recalled the efforts the students took to bring their project to fruition, even through the onset of the pandemic.

"They were challenged by Mr. Johnson to come up with a solution so they developed their initial system and then after meeting with us about it they added more to it. Their product was called 'Presence' and allowed for students to use their ID card that was embedded with an RFID chip to check into class. They created an amazing interface that allowed the system to check in students, send them passes, send out emergency notifications via their app, and track overall attendance," Bull said, continuing:

"It filled a huge need for what we were doing at school since nothing we had or had seen could manage all of these functions. They were resilient in coming up with their product and pitching it to our school district technology department until they met all of the needed requirements to conduct a pilot after securing a confidentiality agreement.

"They were all set to pilot it in the spring of 2020 but then the pandemic hit so they weren't able to pilot. They started their own business in order to be able to secure a data privacy agreement which is required anytime a school product or service is utilizing student information. They were incredible in their persistence and creativity to create this product, that unfortunately we were never able to pilot."

After a series of meetings, the school district was cooperating. Officials were concerned about allowing the students access to the data that contained confidential information.

They worked through those hurdles by setting up their own business and then COVID-19 hit with the lockdown just as they were ready to pilot the system.
That allowed them plenty of time to work on it, but the pilot never happened as the lockdown stretched on and on, and school was remote for the rest of the school year.

Their system originally was designed for in-person learning so after the shutdown hit, they developed another version that integrates with Zoom, Google Classroom and similar programs. Dickey decided to pursue a business major after the team realized there could be commercial applications of their system beyond solving the Foothill problem.

Along the way, they'd interviewed teachers and administrators to better understand the situation. One key addition to the program was a system to control admission to events such as school dances. Currently, it's painstaking because not only must the identity be verified, but the administrator also must be sure they've purchased a ticket.

Their system relies on the tiny RFID chips embedded in the student identification cards. They thought about using bar codes, but found that the chips were accurate and much faster than using a scanner like the ones found in checkout counters in stores.

The question for the team comes down to where this fits into each person's priorities.

They're two years into their college careers and proving the pilot project works and then moving to the manufacturing and marketing stages will take a focused effort by at least one person, if not more.

They've made the Nize device for the classroom application. The device would be installed in every classroom and students simply tap their cards as they enter. A more sophisticated program could utilize smart phones in the same way like Apple Pay.

The company name and logo were developed by CJ Tio, another Foothill student. It's taken from "recognize" the student. The attendance system, Presence, gets its name from students answering "present."

Dickey figures it will take about six months of full-time effort to get the pilot running and demonstrate to customers how well it works. They worked on the project consistently during their junior and senior years and really accelerated during the extended pandemic lockdown.

His college experience at Cal has been different -- as you would expect. He spent three semesters remotely and he noted that most of the undergrads are still feeling their way around because they have not been on campus.

One upside to the remote approach is that all the classes are recorded so it's easy to go back and review them to say nothing about catching up if you happen to miss one. He said that he'd had one early class after in-person learning returned that started with about 400 people in the lecture hall. Later in the semester, that number had dropped to about 20.

This summer he's doing a remote internship with Amazon and is looking forward to a trip to Seattle to meet with other interns and employees. His other summer project is collaborating with his teammates to decide on what to do with their business.