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Laura Seitz, Deseret news
Kindergartners Lilly Heck, left, Brittany Bello and Mark Mercier work with a Bee-Bot with the help of tech coach Tracy Fike at Parley's Park Elementary School in Park City on Thursday, March 23, 2017.

PARK CITY — Remember the children's song and story "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?"

Odds are kindergartners at Parley's Park Elementary School have it committed to memory after the story became the launching point for a technology lesson in their classroom Thursday.

No, they didn't resolve the age-old question of "why she swallowed the fly," but tech coach/coding instructor Tracy Fike used the story to guide the young students through a lesson on sequencing, a fundamental skill of computer coding.

First the old lady swallowed a fly, then a spider and a bird, a cat and so on until she finally chowed down on a horse, which resulted in her demise.

"Did she really die?" a worried tyke inquired.

"It's just a pretend story," Fike assured the class. "You don't think you could really eat a horse, do you?"

After allaying that concern, Fike got the class back on track. Each student was given a paper with drawings of each creature in the story. They then had to write on paper a number a beneath each critter in the order they had been consumed.

Then, the students randomly placed small pictures of the critters and the old woman on a mat fashioned as a grid, and the children programmed Bee-Bot floor robots to travel to each of the characters.

The brightly colored Bee-Bots, which look like friendly bumblebees, can turn and travel forward and in reverse. The children have to count the grid squares and figure out the best paths for the interactive Bee-Bots to travel to a specific destination on the map.

While students think of the activity as play, they are learning the basics of computer programming under a unique partnership among the Park City School District, Park City Education Foundation and private donors.

The instruction is offered to students grades K-3 in each of the school district's elementary schools, Parley's Park, Jeremy Ranch, McPolin and Trailside.

Abby McNulty, executive director of the educational foundation, said the program was piloted last year in the district's first-grade classrooms.

The initiative was launched with a gift from BoardDocs, a Cloud-based paperless meeting solution. Funds were used to hire a trainer who taught three classroom teachers how to teach the fundamentals of coding and programming to elementary school-age children, said foundation spokeswoman Jen Billow.

Some time later, a man who has had a successful career as a coder and entrepreneur proposed expanding the instruction to other elementary school grades and provided a generous gift to do that.

The donor, who prefers not to be identified, "felt in order to increase the diversity in coders and in the tech world, we needed to start early with coding in the elementary school so girls aren’t self-selecting out and minorities aren’t self-selecting out. It was really his vision. He had thought of piloting it in a very diverse, low-income school district. Thankfully we were able to pilot it here in Park City," McNulty said.

A team of four educators who are both tech coaches and coding instructors teach the classes and develop curriculum.

"It's a new program, so we're continually building it," said Fike. The goal is to offer graduated levels of the instruction through the 12th grade.

One of the biggest challenges, Fike said, is keeping up with advances in coding and programming.

"When you look at it, any programming/coding languages we use right now may not exist when they graduate high school. It’s changing all the time," Fike said.

Learning to code in elementary school is an innovation in itself. Park City's schools are among a handful in the country that offer this instruction in the primary grades, McNulty said.

Fike said many of the skills the children learn are foundational and readily transfer to other subject areas.

"We talk a lot about the four Cs, which are critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity," skills that will help students with "whatever comes their way," Fike said.

The instruction emphasizes collaboration. Students work in teams, and they are expected to rely upon one another to solve problems, McNulty said.

The instructors apply a "Three Before Me" rule, which means if they're stuck, they have to ask classmates for help before approaching teachers.

"I like how we set up the cards and how we share and everything," said kindergarten student Emily Anderson.

"I love everything about this. This is a favorite thing of mine to do at Parley's Park because I like how we do the Bee-Bots, how they move, how they make a sound."

Fike said working in groups and problem-solving skills readily transfer to their traditional classwork, too.

"We talk a lot about debugging. That's just going back when you have an error in your program and you go back, find your mistake and work to fix it," she explained.

A Spanish-speaking teacher in a dual-immersion classroom asked Fike to teach her students the word "depurar," which is Spanish for debug.

Now, when a student struggles with a math problem, the teacher instructs them to "depurar." Instead of the student saying they "can't do it" they seek out their mistakes and work until they correct them, Fike said.

While no one uses terms like sequencing and coding in the kindergarten classroom, students are learning the basics of computer programming that they will build upon in the succeeding year, she said.

"Coding just seems fun. They don't even realize they're learning. But we're not just playing games, we're building skills," Fike said.