Imagine a balsa wood structure that’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, yet strong enough to support a thousand pounds. Imagine an original musical about birds, including a rap song sung by a raptor, whose wings are made of candy wrappers. Imagine a talking washing machine that brings together white and colored laundry in a skit to promote racial integration.
Now imagine that all of this and more, was conceived, designed, built and performed entirely by teams of Harford County Public School students, all without adult interference. You have just imagined Destination Imagination, the best extra-curricular program for kids that you’ve probably never heard of.
I’d never heard of it either, until I got a call from Ring Factory Elementary School asking for a volunteer to manage a team of second-graders in what at the time was called Odyssey of the Mind. Twelve years later, I’m still a volunteer in the successor program known as Destination Imagination (DI), a creative problem solving competition for kids of all ages, where Harford County teams have won international awards.
What make DI so unique? DI empowers students to combine creativity with research and teamwork to solve all kinds of unusual challenges. In the process, DI prepares young people to handle the real world problems that life will throw their way. Is it any wonder then that colleges and employers love kids who have done DI?
How it Works:
DI is an after-school program for teams of up to seven students, grouped by levels in elementary, middle and high school. The teams choose one of five DI Challenges to solve, each with a different educational focus including engineering, technical design, literature, fine arts, scientific exploration, improvisation, and community service. Every DI Challenge requires team members to learn the creative problem solving process and to present an original solution to their Challenge in the form of a timed presentation.
Solving a DI Challenge also requires a diverse set of skills, some that team members may already have, and some, like sewing or using power tools, that team members may need to acquire (it’s okay for adults to teach basic skills, but adults cannot suggest ideas, do the work, or contribute to the final presentation in any way.)
By design, no DI Challenge can be solved by one team member acting alone – teamwork is built into the program and it’s one of DI’s most powerful lessons. The natural performer who loves to sing and dance learns to work with the introvert who builds robots. The varsity soccer player collaborates with the big-hearted kid who organizes clothing drives for the homeless. The go-getter who’s itching to build things, learns to get along with the bookworm who likes to write stories. Along the way, team members stretch their own comfort zones, learning how to lead and how to follow, all in pursuit of a common goal.
DI teams begin working on their respective challenges each fall, meeting after school and on weekends. Each spring, the program culminates in regional, state and international tournaments that include some on-the-spot challenges that team members have never seen before.
As tough as that sounds, DI tournaments are more celebration than competition. There are trophies for top teams of course, but there are also awards for teams who exemplify the values of the program, by helping others or by demonstrating persistence in the face of adversity. I saw one team get an award for lending their tools and the essential duct tape to a team that had forgotten their supplies. I saw another team awarded when one team member got queasy during their presentation, got sick behind a piece of scenery, and came back on stage to finish his performance without missing a beat.
DI reaches over 100,000 kids around the world, but DI is particularly strong in Harford County, thanks to support from volunteers and especially from Harford County Public Schools. Harford County usually fields about 60 teams in the regional competition, the largest regional participation in the state. And Harford teams of all ages have been winners at Maryland state competitions, including teams from Aberdeen, Edgewood, Bel Air, Fallston and North Harford. Remarkably, several local teams have also won medals at Global Finals, an international competition fashioned after the Olympics, that brings together top teams from 30 different countries for a three-day celebration of creativity, teamwork, and all kinds of crazy fun.
It’s not too late to form a team for the 2010-11 school year. The cost to register for Harford County Public School teams is usually a modest $98 or less, but for a limited time, it’s free. Harford County Public Schools has purchased memberships from DI, a non-profit organization, and HCPS will offer them to volunteers who will manage or co-manage a team at their school. Contact your school principal to find out more.
Not that you have to be affiliated with a public school to do DI. Private schools, community groups, PTAs, YMCAs, 4H Clubs and other community groups can form a team. Registrations purchased directly from DI are still under $200 and more information can be found on the DI website www.idodi.org
Teams need at least one adult team manager in order to register and I won’t lie – being a team manger is challenging. But it’s rewarding too. Imagine having a front row seat as teams brainstorm ideas, do research, try out solutions, work around obstacles, and harness their creative powers to solve all kinds of problems. Given the world they will inherit, don’t you wish more kids could do DI?
A Note From the Author: The above story is dedicated to the memory of Casey Butler, a Bel Air High School graduate and former DI team member, who died suddenly this week. Casey was a talented young woman who will be greatly missed.