My name is Naomi Thompson, and I’m a third-year Ph.D. student in the Learning Sciences Program in the Indiana University School of Education. Over the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a really exciting project funded by the National Science Foundation (principal investigator: Kylie Peppler, co-principal investigators: Joshua Danish, Armin Moczek) called BioSim. This project has given me the opportunity to work across campus with faculty from the School of Education and Department of Biology, and gain experience working on a nationally funded grant. Our work helps young children learn complex science topics usually not introduced until middle school or later. The picture above shows a child using one of our electronic bee puppets to collet nectar from a flower during a BeeSim activity. To give a better sense of what BioSim looks like in action, allow me to share a description of activity on a day we were pilot testing the honeybee themed portion of the project, BeeSim, in a local program this past summer.
Six young children in two groups are busy, each group hidden behind large swaths of bright yellow fabric. This fabric indicates there are two hives, and the children are pretending to be honeybees searching for nectar to bring back to their hive. They need to come up with a method of communication to share good nectar sources with their hivemates, but they cannot point or use their voices. One group is having trouble — they don’t know what their sign system should be. The facilitator suggests they think about other signs and signals they’ve seen around them. Do any of them play sports? One active boy in the group lights up. “Baseball!” His group decides they will swing an imaginary bat toward the right or the left of the room to indicate which direction their teammates will find the desired nectar source. The other group is attempting to emulate a real honeybee’s waggle dance. They scurry around in little figure eights, waggling their bodies in the direction of the flower.
When it is time for the game to begin, they line up inside their hives, excited and fidgeting, with larger-than-life bee puppets in their small hands. The facilitator presses a button on the computer and says, “Go!” Lights flash on the puppets, and one child from each hive darts into the field. They quickly survey the landscape and make a choice to explore individual flowers. One girl realizes she has found nectar at the first flower she explored. “Yes!” she exclaims. She quickly fills up and scurries back to the hive to share the good news. Once back inside the hive, she shuffles around in her figure eight, hoping that her message has been conveyed as the next little bee heads out to the field.”
This is BeeSim! Children may not always realize it, but they are learning about a complex system through the lives of honeybees. The world around us – from government to highway traffic to social insects – is made up of complex systems with lots of moving parts interacting at different levels.
These ideas can be hard for even adults to understand, but we believe this way of understanding the world, called systems thinking, can start to be taught as early as kindergarten. We work with kids to help them act out these systems; they pretend to be honeybees and begin to appreciate how simple solutions exist for the complex dilemmas that these insects face. For example, many students assume that an omniscient queen bee knows where nectar can be found and then tells the worker bees where to go. The reality, as the children discover, is far more simple and elegant: if a bee finds nectar, it dances to tell its peers. That’s it! The sheer number of bees and repetition of dances takes care of all the rest, and the queen bee isn’t involved in the nectar search at all.
Over time, researchers in the School of Education and Department of Biology have been able to develop some really exciting technology to help us facilitate these embodied simulations. After low-tech beginnings, children in our programs now use electronic bee puppets to help them embody the life of a honeybee. The puppets are connected to a server (via technology similar to Bluetooth) that keeps track of the children’s actions in the classroom as well as the various nectar levels of flowers, beehives, and individual bees. The puppets give important information to the children as they play: lights in the eyes display energy levels, lights on the thorax (the bee’s body) display how much nectar the bee is holding, and lights in the antennae display whether a flower is a good nectar source.
This is still only a portion of the activities. We also think it’s important for children at this age to see the system from a third-person, or bird’s eye perspective. Another part of the program allows the children to watch a simulation of how honeybees in the wild collect nectar. They identify patterns in the ways honeybees move around a field, and notice how bees with a specialized communication system adapt quickly to changes in the environment, like when a flower runs out of nectar.
This is such exciting work, and it’s great to watch kids so young think really hard about these difficult ideas. There is never a dull moment during a BeeSim session. Kids are constantly buzzing, thinking, playing, and learning. I love seeing that lightbulb go off, that realization that honeybees are really cool and complex. Maybe it happens when they realize that searching for nectar isn’t always easy, or that the queen bee isn’t a supreme ruler that tells the other bees what to do. Or maybe when they understand that all bees really need is food for survival, and they are both very different and yet very similar to humans.
As we continue collecting data on BeeSim classroom implementations, we’re developing a partner program called AntSim. In this set of activities, children will get to act out the lives of army ants. Not only is this another fascinating complex system, but we think repeated engagement with complex systems like this will help children start thinking about more and more parts of their lives from a systems thinking lens. This is the ultimate goal: curious, excited children asking questions and thinking about the world in new ways.
Special thanks to NSF, Kylie Peppler, Joshua Danish, Armin Moczek, Larice Thoroughgood, Janis Watson, Ed Gentry and all of the teachers and children who make this work possible!
 This vignette appears in an upcoming chapter about designing BioSim in The Handbook of Research on Serious Games for Educational Applications (forthcoming).