They call themselves the Smartie-Nerds (a mash-up of the two candy names), and after placing fifth in the world at last spring’s Destination Imagination global competition at the University of Tennessee, nobody’s going to argue with them.
“Them” is Madison Gildersleeve-Price, Abby and Elly Haden, Teresa Li, Maggie Matthews, Sarah Trotter, and Stacy Vitko, an all-girl team from Albemarle High School. For some of them, this was their third trip to the international innovation competition, where they rubbed elbows with 16,000 students from all over the world. They earned their spot in the global competition by succeeding at regional and state contests earlier in the year.
Destination Imagination, a non-profit, volunteer-led organization, holds competitions every year around themes that align with national education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) standards. This year’s themes tested student knowledge, research, and presentation skills in eight challenge categories: technical, scientific, fine arts, improvisational, structural, service learning, early learning, and instant challenge.
“DI competitions have two parts,” explained Steph Haden, the Smartie-Nerds’ mentor, who’s been managing DI teams for a decade. “There is the central challenge and an instant challenge, and all teams pick one of the central challenges to work on during the year.”
Haden’s team began preparing for its central technical challenge last September. It entailed writing a play that features a device that can detect something humans cannot normally discern. The girls also had to build 16 containers that contain objects that cannot be seen, as well as a machine that can detect whether or not an object is in the container. Then they had to make sure the machine could remove the object from the container, without a team member touching the container or the object, and deliver it to another location on the floor.
In Knoxville, “10 objects were randomly placed into 10 of the 16 boxes,” Haden said. “The team then had eight minutes to perform their play and detect, remove, and deliver all 10 of the objects.”
As for the instant challenge, it is always timed, and a complete surprise that usually involves building and acting. This year, the Smartie-Nerds were given supplies like straws, rubber bands, and paper cups. There was a square on one side of the room, and taped lines moving away from the square marking different zones. The team had to build a structure that only touched the floor inside the taped square and extended out from the square into the furthest zone possible. Then the girls needed to decide whether to make the end of the tower that extended into the zones high or low. If they chose high, they got a certain number of points for how many inches above the floor the end of the structure was; if they went low, they had to get it as close to the ground as possible without touching the floor.
“You can get an instant challenge that you immediately see a solution for or one that stumps you,” Haden said, adding that when she worked with her first DI teams, she was amazed by the technical skill and ability level of the high school teams she observed.
“I was astounded at elaborate wooden and pipe sets, intricately put together, and wondered how my elementary school teams, who could not think beyond tape as an attachment means, could ever get there,” she said. “Now my team members solder and drill and saw and make elaborate sets and costumes.”
But DI isn’t all work and no play. Haden’s eldest daughter, Abby, a senior at AHS, said the members of her team, some of whom she’s competed with since middle school, are all good friends.
“Working on a team together allows us to bond in a way many friends cannot,” she said. “The machine not working the day before the tournament, the set falling over in the middle of the play, but also the first time the car wheels turn and it moves across the basement floor, or seeing our name on the Jumbotron, telling us we got fifth place.”
Abby credits the Smartie-Nerds’ success to knowing each other well, and being familiar with what everyone is good at. “We have a great balance of builders, artists, actresses, and seamstresses, and that can be seen in our final presentation,” she said. “At meetings, we come together to discuss big picture stuff, but then we always divide and conquer with different people working on what they are best at.”
According to Steph Haden, DI is designed to teach kids problem solving and how to think on their feet. As a leader, she is not allowed to give members of her team ideas or assist them. “The easiest way for me to do that is to stay away from them while they are working,” she said. “Sometimes I make them cookies, but that is about it.”