Tech and teaching at New West's Lord Kelvin Elementary

Stephanie Musgrove uses Bee-Bots to set the foundation for coding, a skill she hopes will serve her kindergarteners into their older years

Elim, a student from Stephanie Musgrove’s class ponders her next coding move as she plays with a Bee-Bot. The Bee-Bot is used to teach kids about programming/Ria Renouf

It’s a chilly January day as Ken Millard walks me to a classroom at Lord Kelvin Elementary. He’s been the school’s principal for 10 years, and as he puts his hand on the door to Stephanie Musgrove’s classroom, you can see how proud he is of the work she’s done to set the foundations of lifelong learning in young children.

“She’s one of a kind,” he says to me before the door opens to a colourful space: an absolute juxtaposition to the world I know as a writer and reporter. For now, I’m forgetting about work, bills, and all my adult responsibilities as I take in the toys, books, tables, and artwork.

I walk towards the group of 20 or so youngsters sitting on a carpet; they’re listening with anticipation as Musgrove, seated in a chair in front of them, makes eye contact with Millard. She stops talking and asks the kids to turn their heads and look up.

“Who do you see?” she asks, the animation obvious in her eyes.

“Hi Mr. Millard!” They all say in unison; they’re extremely polite and cheerful in their greeting.

“Who else is there?” Musgrove inquires, smiling at me with her eyes.

One of the kids pipes up inquisitively: “What should we call you?!”

“Call me Ria,” I say. “Hi!”

“Hi Ria!”

Musgrove reminds the class of the special visitor chair for me, and I head over to have a seat. The kids have been given one task: for the next hour, they’ll play with Bee-Bots and tell me more about how this jaunty little toy helps them learn programming—what you might also refer to as coding—at just five years of age.

The kids quickly break out into pairs: one person is responsible for grabbing a Bee-Bot—carefully from the station—with two hands.

This extremely adorable piece of technology looks exactly like a bee: the yellow half-sphere is covered in black stripes and has big ol’ round eyes that will flash, depending on what it’s doing. Buttons on top help kids with their coding: four green buttons represent forward, reverse, left, and right. In the middle, there’s a “go” button, aptly coloured green. There’s a black button that allows them to delete or clear codes they’ve put in, and another one is labelled with the pause symbol—though student Kenai is quick to loop me in about the secrets of the pause button: “We don’t really use it.”

A line of Bee-Bots on the big mat in Stephanie Musgrove’s classroom/Ria Renouf

The second child grabs a play mat with a variety of coloured shapes on it. The goal is to get the Bee-Bot to go from one shape to the other on the mat—and all they’ll need to do is input the codes into the Bee-Bot to get them there. Kenai’s partner points to a specific shape, and he begins to tap on each shape between where his Bee-Bot is and where it needs to end up. Kenai looks to be counting the shapes to figure out the tool’s needed paces, and I asked him how he knew to do that.

“I just do it,” he says matter-of-factly, as the Bee-Bot swiftly rolls to its destination. I follow up with Musgrove after the exercise. “I actually didn’t teach them that,” she says, “it was a problem-solving skill a couple of them picked up, and they just shared it with one another.”

Next, we visit Arya and his partner. Arya points to the Bee-Bot as its eyes blink, and I ask why that happened.

“They’re blinking because they’re waiting!” Arya responds with glee—and goes on to say that the bee is trying to let us know it’s finished processing the code his partner put in. “They’re blinking because they need a [new] command.”

A few feet away, Jack wants to see the Bee-Bot turn around three times, but missed pushing one of the arrows, hitting the “go” button before he was done. We watch as the Bee-Bot makes two partial rotations—it looks a little bit like a dance.

“Let’s show Ria our dance of the Bee-Bots!” Musgrove says, and the kids carefully move the Bee-Bots out of the way, pick up their mats, and split up in an orderly fashion on the larger classroom mat. Musgrove asks one line to carefully grab their Bee-Bots with two hands while the other side waits. They again repeat the process of picking up the tech with two hands, walking it over to the edge of the carpet opposite their partners, and they sit down.

"OK everyone. Let’s start programming,” says Musgrove, as she grabs a stack of signs. She holds up each one to remind the kids of what each sign corresponds to on the Bee-Bot button. They call out the direction and push the respective input as she points to them.

Stephanie Musgrove, a kindergarten teacher at Lord Kelvin Elementary, holds up a sign that tells her students to press the “right” button on the Bee-Bots/Ria Renouf

“OK commanders, are you ready to command?” Musgrove asks as the students chatter excitedly.

The kids look up at her, and they have their hands on their Bee-Bots, ready to go. A couple of them are diligent in checking to make sure they’ve deleted the previous commands, while some of the other Bee-Bot-less kids across the mat yell for them to clear the old codes. “Commanders! Two, turn right.”

You can hear the beeping as the kids count and push the “right” button on the Bee-Bot twice.

“Commanders! Two, turn left,” Musgrove waits for them to finish pushing the buttons. “And, last command: five, forwards.

“Ready commanders? Good luck!”

As Musgrove says “go,” the kindergarteners hit the green buttons all at once, and watch excitedly to see if the little robot will make it to their partner. They squeal in delight; some of them are clearly racing one another. Some observe issues with their coding and are a little frustrated as the tech spins around in full circles, moves backwards, or stops too early.

When all the bots stop moving, Musgrove gives the students on the opposite side a set of commands. They go back and forth like this for about 10 minutes, and while they’re clearly having fun, I’m seeing a variety of skills in practice: problem solving, cooperation, collaboration, and socializing.

A major shift in classroom technology

As I reflect on my own experiences as a kindergartener, I think back to what I had the opportunity to engage with—I went to Gilmore Community School in Burnaby, starting my journey there in 1995.

We never had anything like Bee-Bots in our classrooms: we had to go to a computer lab to play with clunky cube-shaped Macintosh computers: my two favourite programs were Dollhouse and something called Brickles.

When I ask Millard if there has been a shift in what tools are available to teachers to showcase technology, coding, and programming, he doesn’t hesitate to say “yes,” then explains why.

“Over the last few years, there’s been more of a focus on coding, or eventually programming, so it’s really mostly in the realm of math, mathematics, and numeracy,” he says, adding that the district has a variety of tools it can use—starting with the Bee-Bots. That’s followed by the Code-a-Pillar—a set of coding puzzles offered in both app and toy form—then ScratchJr, offered through Chromebooks, which uses sequencing cause-and-effect to explain coding.

“[Coding in the prescribed learning outcomes] has had a gradual build over the last five or six years. With ScratchJr, a lot of students do well at it, and it really stretches their thinking. By the time they’re in Grade 5, they’re able to have images respond to a touch on the keyboard so that they can create small games or learning activities where you have to guess the right answer.”

What’s more, Millard says he’s seen an improvement to the teachers’ skill set when it comes to tech, adding it has happened over a period of at least 10 years. While there’s still a little bit of resistance to bringing relatively advanced technology into some of the classrooms, most instructors have been ready, willing, and able to adapt.

“I think the newer generation of teachers have probably had some experience themselves … so there’s less hesitancy for that. Some teachers gravitate to it more than others, but I think overall there’s definitely more of a hands-on approach to learning and a lot of it is kind of technology-based, right?”

While the initial financial investment can be high—depending on what kind of technology is being brought into the classroom—Millard says the long-term payback is worth it.

“It’s not too bad … and it’s something that you hope is going to last for a few years … if we care for [the technology] they will last for quite a few years, right? And there is money to invest in that from our school district.”

Millard says instructors at the school have been served well through an assortment of networks and shared information in which educators pass on tips and tricks about the newest gadget.

“If you can find another teacher who’s tried it, that’s probably the best way for other teachers to get a sense of what is involved: ‘What do I need to learn?’ ‘What are the first steps?’ Going online, you’re able to find out a little bit more, but often it depends on the size of the school. But in a decent sized school, there’s usually somebody who is dabbling in some kind of new technology.”

Taking it one step further

There is someone who happens to be dabbling in said technology—and they’re actually dabbling for the entire district.

Sabine Decamp is the district’s curriculum facilitator for technology. Her goal is to support teachers who want to incorporate technology into their learning—she’s been doing this for the district for nearly seven years.

It turns out she was the person who introduced the Bee-Bots to local classrooms.

“I created a kit for the district that the teachers could borrow, and the first year or two years, I went around with the kits from school to school and trained a couple of teachers who were interested in it. And it’s really taken off,” says Decamp, adding that the educational and fun technology became popular through word-of-mouth.

As she reflects on how far technology in the district has come, Decamp says there was no content for certain age groups of children when she first started—in particular, those from kindergarten to Grade 3. That had teachers wondering what options they had available to them.

“With the little ones … just being in a classroom and already learning how to behave in a class is already so much a big part of going to school that adding the technology part on top of it was not for everybody,” says Decamp. “For teachers who have really good classroom management, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just saying, ‘Let’s do something really fun. You’re still going to learn.’ And they could also see past just the technology aspect. [Musgrove] sees collaboration, she sees problem solving, all those little things that are so important.”

The students are also not just using robots for scientific purposes: they’re getting an introduction to their artistic side, too: Decamp says there are some students in grades 2 and 3 making use of a robot called a Sphero.

“They are writing stories [and] the Sphero is telling the story. They have to show the emotion of the Sphero by changing the colour, changing what it says, changing how fast it moves,” Decamp says.

“In a Grade 4/5 class, you know the Operation games? They made their own Operation games. They had a box, built all the pieces, and they had chopsticks and tried to remove [them], and if they touch the side, the computer will say, ‘Don’t steal my heart!’”

The offerings becomes more intricate as the students age: they’re able to better understand more formal coding and can improve on their technological learnings through VEX IQ robots and micro:bits—mini-computers that students can code to do things, like act as dice.

“It’s still teacher-dependent, it’s still up to the teacher if they want to do something more technology-oriented in their class or not. But if they want to do that in the school … they can call me, they can email me.”

As the final Bee-Bot dance comes to a close, the students and I stay seated on the floor to talk about what they enjoy doing with the Bee-Bot. Poroshad likes to push the buttons to program them; for Michael, he enjoys putting the instructions in the Bee-Bot’s brain.

Shiori says it’s sometime challenging to put the code in, and it is tricky when the Bee-Bot doesn’t go where she wants it to go. For Kenai, he’ll sometimes forget to delete the commands.

Ultimately, as Decamp points out, these are skills that the youngsters will continue to build on as they make their way through school—and what’s more, they’ll be encouraged to try in a space that champions support and innovation.

“These skills that these students learn through technology—collaboration, problem solving—teach them a lot about resilience. Trying over and over and over again, it’s very safe because nothing is going to break. It’s just a code or something on a robot.”

And it’s all about future opportunities. “Once you know how this works, then it’s easier to learn [the related skills] later. It really is like, when you learn one thing, learning the next is actually not that hard. It’s usually mostly the same, and a little bit different. Because you’ve got that skill set, you can just build.”