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Technology in Campus Life

Campuses Dabble with Smart — and Personal — Vending Machines

Vending machines on campus have grown beyond sodas, water and candy bars. The University of California Davis long ago introduced a testing-material vending machine that provides blue books, scantrons, highlighters and pencils for students on the run.

a smart vending machine

A smart vending machine

More recently, dispensing has gotten more personal. In time for the new school year Stanford University has installed a machine that issues emergency contraceptives. According to the Stanford Daily, the vending machine accepts credit cards and dispenses four products: My Way, a generic "morning-after" pill; two kinds of condoms; and Advil. It's located in a gender-neutral bathroom alongside another machine that sells food (required to be taken with the contraceptive) in the Old Union, a student hub that houses several student organizations, including the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).

The same products were already available on campus, at the health center, but that facility was only open on weekdays during standard working hours, which were even more limited during the summer. Heading off-campus to do purchasing would have required students to pay full price.

Getting the machine installed was a long-time journey for graduate Rachel Samuels, spurred to take on the project by her brother, who had "successfully lobbied" for the same kind of machine at his school, Pomona College. The process began in January 2015, when Samuels reached out to fellow students to help pull off a survey gauging potential interest. Most of the responses were favorable. Next came numerous meetings to drum up administrative support and work out the "legal and logistical" problems.

However, Samuels went abroad during her junior year, which put the project on hold. Upon her return, she took the initiative to ASSU as part of its "executive platform," and eventually generated support from leaders at five campus offices, including Institutional Equity & Access, which oversees SARA, the Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse Education and Response, and viewed the effort as connected to the work it was doing in "reproductive justice."

In the meantime, Samuels graduated, but she didn't relinquish oversight of the goal. According to the Daily, she maintained "weekly contact" with campus administration and the ASSU, all the way through eventual the machine's installation.

That's like what occurred at UC Davis, when a former senator in that university's associated students organization promoted the addition of a " Wellness-To-Go" vending machine to sell the Plan B contraception, condoms and other personal products.

According to campus newspaper, the California Aggie, it took two years for Parteek Singh to persuade the institution to set up the vending machine. In fact, the idea for the machine was an element of Singh's platform when he ran for office. School officials had promoted the idea of selling the Plan B contraception in the bookstore, but Singh resisted, explaining to the Aggie that students "already don't feel comfortable buying it" — let alone, from another student. To make his idea more compelling, Singh proposed including other wellness products, such as feminine hygiene products and allergy medications. None of the products dispensed requires a prescription.

He'd heard about the machine from friends who were familiar with a similar concept in place at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. While the machine there was set up in the health center in a private treatment area available only to students, the health center is open every day of the week.

As NPR reported earlier this year, Chinese campuses are hosting vending machines that sell HIV testing kits to encourage more people to get tested; that program is being managed by the country's National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention, which is subsidizing the tests to keep them inexpensive (about $4).

At UC Davis, the program, which went live earlier this year, is providing access to Plan B at a lower rate too — about $30 vs. the $40 to $50 charged by local pharmacies.

Unusual items in campus kiosks are hardly new. Twenty years ago an article in a Georgia Tech publication reported on vending machines at that school dispensing personal pizzas, chili dogs and pancakes.

Eleven years later, UC Davis' bookstore set up a $5000 machine closer to academic buildings than the bookstore itself was to dispense those testing supplies.

IVM, a company that sells "smart vending solutions" sees "untapped potential" for all kinds of kiosks on campus. The company has already installed vending machines and "smart vending lockers" in other environments:

  • To dispense safety supplies such as helmets, gloves and earplugs to maintenance employees;
  • To issue tech supplies for office workers, such as computer mice, laptop batteries and headsets; and
  • To supply bicycle components, such as replacement tires and cycle computers, to encourage healthy habits.

The advantages, according to President, Mike Pitts, is that the vending machines can track data on supply usage, add a level of convenience to supply distribution and reduce the time and cost of supply procurement.

"Bringing vending solutions on college campuses is about simplifying the lives of the staff, faculty and students," Pitts told Campus Technology, "Whether these machines vend common tech peripherals to instructors, testing supplies to students or repair tools and safety gear to maintenance teams, everyone benefits by having immediate access to the things they need to be productive and prepared. While these machines are convenient, they also help streamline supply-procurement processes and cut costs over time."

According to Pitts, those companies have seen cost savings that average about 35 percent compared to the distribution processes they formerly followed. Among IVM's customers are Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, HP and Dropbox.

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