May 302013

I began writing this post as we were leaving Destination Imagination Global Finals, making our way home from Knoxville, Tennessee to Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and finally Iowa early yesterday afternoon. When we left Knoxville, we had swollen feet, achy knees and gritty eyes. In a word, we were exhausted, but it was a good kind of exhaustion because we knew we had done our part in helping kids from around the world demonstrate their creativity at Destination Imagination’s annual creative problem-solving competition held at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. This was John’s and my 8th consecutive year, officiating as Instant Challenge Appraisers. Instant Challenge is the part of the Destination Imagination® (DI) program that involves on-the-spot problem-solving skills. A team of two to seven students enters a classroom, is presented with a completely unfamiliar task- or performance-based challenge, and has 3 to 10 minutes to solve it using creativity, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Every single team at Destination Imagination Global Finals passes through the Humanities Building at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to solve an Instant Challenge. That means lots of teams (nearly 1,250 teams from 42 states and 14 countries), and many officials and translators. In addition, all teams select one of six competitive Team Challenges that are either technical, scientific, fine arts, improvisational, structural or service learning-based, and solve that over an extended period of time (several months). They demonstrate their solution through a skit at competition.

In the video below that won the Show Us Your Skills contest, a Destination Imagination team member describes what the DI program has done for her.

John and I are wearing one of the blue shirts below, which represents a Head Appraiser role. There are so many Instant Challenge officials, however, that I suspect we are nearly impossible to locate in this photo. If you look carefully on the left side of the photo, you’ll see both John and me in the 4th row from the bottom. I am standing slightly behind and to the right of a lady wearing a large-brimmed hat. Two ladies stand between John and me.

Instant Challenge Appraisers

To guarantee that no team knows in advance what Instant Challenge it will solve, we are not allowed to take photos of either the teams solving their challenge, or our competition rooms. Because of this, I can only give you a sense of what we experienced by sharing with you some other photos, starting with our arrival in Tennessee.  We always know when we are getting close to Knoxville because there’s a sign announcing the Cumberland Gap about a half hour away from the city.

Cumberland Gap

We also know we’re in the South, where grits are served, when we see a Waffle House.

Waffle House

As we took the Henley Street exit toward our hotel, the Sunsphere greeted us on the right. The Hilton Hotel, where all of the Appraisers and Affiliate Directors stay, looms in the background.

Henley Street Exit

Every official who is selected to volunteer at Destination Imagination Global Finals is provided with room and board if they can get themselves to Knoxville. John and I had a very nice room on the 17th floor of the Hilton Hotel, although we did not spend a lot of time in it because of the hours we worked. We boarded a bus for the Humanities building at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. each day, and returned to the hotel between 5:45 and 6:30 p.m.

Hilton Hotel Collage

Everyone who attends DI Global Finals, whether you are an official, a participant or a spectator, wears an identification badge. Even if you are just wandering the campus, as we did on the day we arrived, you wear your badge.


One of the main centers of activity on campus is the Knoxville Convention Center, where teams trade pins with each other, browse through the Innovation EXPO where exhibitors from NASA, National Geographic, 3M and other companies or organizations interact with around 18,000 visitors. They provide hands-on activities or educational presentations for everyone. In 3M’s Explore the Uncharted event, for example, teams raced through an underwater adventure  to uncover clues, discover marine life and hunt for hidden treasures, at the same time learning about the effects plastics have on our beaches and oceans. They also simulated water clean-up activities.

Knoxville Convention Center

Some of the competition also takes place in this building, and of course there is a shopping area where you can purchase souvenirs, games and DI apparel. I picked up a CD filled with 100 Instant Challenges, an improvisational game, and a few pins as remembrances of this year at DI Global Finals.


Near the Knoxville Convention Center, John and I ascended an elevator to the 4th floor of the Sunsphere, which is where its Observation Deck is located.  The Sunsphere was the theme structure of the 1982 World’s Fair site and was designed by a local architectural company called Community Tectonics. This company’s idea was to tie a representation of the sun to the event’s energy theme.


The Sunsphere provides a panoramic view of the downtown Knoxville area. On one side you can see the University of Tennessee Conference Center, where officials and Affiliate Directors enjoyed an “after party” following Closing Ceremonies. There is a skywalk that takes you from the Conference Center to the Knoxville Convention Center, although you can’t see the skywalk in this photo. Notice the Hilton Hotel in the background, which is where we stayed.

UT Conference Center

On the other side of the Sunsphere’s Observation Deck, you can see the World’s Fair Park, where DI held a “Glo-Ball” for secondary and university level teams one week ago on Thursday night. The World’s Fair Park is a work of art in its own right.

World's Fair Park

Before competition began on Wednesday of last week, a dinner was held for all Instant Challenge Appraisers at the University of Tennessee Conference Center. It was great to meet new Global Finals officials and renew friendships with returning ones. As we entered the buffet line, a pseudo ice sculpture greeted us.

Ice Sculpture

One of the goals that all officials strive for at DI Global Finals is to create a fun, festive atmosphere for the kids. You’ll see all kinds of crazy hats at the event, both during competition and at Opening and Closing Ceremonies. John, in fact, decorated his competition classroom with a fiesta theme, and I decorated mine with a cinematography theme.

Hat Collage

Left to right: Matt Elder (California), John & me, Megan Malone (Texas)

So, what did the kids in our Instant Challenge rooms do? Again, I do not have photos, but I can tell you that in John’s room, elementary teams were challenged to prevent 60 marbles from falling from a funnel into a bucket with nothing more than note cards and twine. The funnel was attached to the center of an over-sized table, with four-by-fours serving as table legs. In my room, another set of elementary teams was asked to design a device with lightweight materials, attach it to a wheel, and make the wheel spin with an electric fan.

We were amused, entertained and convinced more than ever that there is a need for a program like this, where children’s imaginations are stretched and a “how can we do this?” mindset, instead of a “can we do this?” attitude, is encouraged. As these kids make their collective creative problem-solving journeys, they learn life skills such as time management, collaboration, conflict resolution, and creative and critical thinking. Competition is only one aspect of this program; there are many teams that solve Destination Imagination Team Challenges and Instant Challenges as part of a community program, an after-school program, or within their classrooms—yet they do not participate at tournament. I know I am sounding a bit like an advertisement, but if you don’t have a DI program in your own community, visit Destination Imagination for more information. New Challenges are released on September 1st each year, and it is easy to get started.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll discuss the “side trips” we took both in Knoxville, Tennessee and on our journey back to Iowa.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Apr 192008

I looked at the date of my last post and wondered where time had gone. Truthfully, I’ve been fully occupied with creative endeavors–with my hands, my heart and my head. Running a virtual handmade goods shop (JN Originals) means you’re always jotting down ideas, shopping or searching for supplies, and developing new items. I love it! As a Board member of Students for a Creative Iowa, I’m also heavily involved with the Destination ImagiNation program that will be coming to a head very soon at the end of May at Global Finals at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. My husband and I are volunteering as Appraisers at this event. At the end of this month, I’ll be judging middle school students’ creative theatrical interpretations of this year’s National History Day theme, “Conflict & Compromise in History.” So, life is rich and full, and I’m deeply immersed in a multi-directional, creative journey. Along the way, however, I find it helpful to think about different kinds of framework in which creativity thrives.

In Destination ImagiNation, the program stresses the importance of divergent thinking, or “out of the box” thinking. People who are new to the program (or have even been involved in it for a number of years) are struck, however, by what seem to be an overwhelming number of rules. There is a Team Challenge that each 2-7 member group solves that is accompanied by half a dozen pages of single-spaced rules, in addition to a 40-page-plus general rule book called Rules of the Road. On the surface, this does not appear to be thinking outside the box at all, but instead the box itself! My philosophy, however, is that a box, or a framework, helps you to be creative. Having restrictions or limitations is not really limiting, but instead empowering because it stretches your imagination. This stretching is not always comfortable (in fact, sometimes it can be quite painful), but when you are able to solve a challenge or problem despite the limitations that exist, personal growth develops and creativity emerges.

In psychological terms, limitations create a state of “dynamic tension,” or a condition in which what we already know is mismatched with what is new. In Destination ImagiNation, the rules and/or restrictions push at the boundaries of our comfort zone, leading us into a “groan zone” that can make us anxious and uncomfortable, and sometimes disappointed. However, when we are willing to take a few risks, resist the temptation to drop the challenge, ignore the rules, or look for the easiest (and probably least unique!) solution, we emerge into a “growth zone” with new feelings of mastery, accomplishment and familiarity. And then the cycle begins again with something else that is new. This is what experiential learning is all about, and it is the foundation of the Destination ImagiNation program. It is no accident that the logo for the program is a box and a ball! The box represents the framework (with limitations), and the ball represents the team’s growth as it bounces out of the box. Of course, there’s always another box around the corner!

You often hear famous writers speak of the anguish that accompanies the act of producing a novel, a poem, a play or some form of writing. The limitations of their “box” can involve genre, time, place, point of view, characterization, plot, speech patterns, story length . . . and the list continues. What they are really dealing with is the proverbial groan zone that accompanies the process of creativity. “The only way to produce excellent writing,” says story analyst and writer Staton Robin (“How to get past Writer’s Block,” The Writer, April 2008), “is to work through story problems methodically, and know which ideas ought to be discarded and which can be improved.” Robin points out that writing, essentially, is problem-solving. When the writer works through these issues, creativity emerges and mastery of the subject matter ensues.

An engineer or artist, on the surface, appear to be dealing with different types of creativity. But in both cases, these individuals need to know the properties of the materials they are dealing with–and their limitations–before they can develop something new. Sometimes these limitations are self-imposed, and sometimes they come from outside sources, but in either case, the result is something new that would not have existed without the limitations. Necessity truly is the mother of invention!

As I think about the handmade goods I am now selling, these same creativity principles apply. When I first considered selling the items I made, I considered the range of skills I already had, as well as the published patterns to which I could apply them. Obviously, this was my comfort zone, and it would be easiest to simply produce items from these patterns. But I really wanted to challenge myself, so I set up a prevailing limitation: I would use only my own patterns. Of course, that meant I would have to develop them! This, then, became my groan zone, where I definitely felt anxious about my ability to develop my own patterns, and where I feared that what I produced would not appeal. I started with what was familiar to me: crocheted scarves and hair scrunchies. But as time continues, I am developing patterns for felted bags, needle books, flower brooches and Artist Trading Card organizers (“Treasure Books”). Before I began selling via the Web, I was comfortable with using the Web in general, but knew next to nothing about Web marketing, little about photography beyond the automatic settings on my camera, and had no idea how to price handmade goods. But you have to bounce “out of the box” sometime! I am gradually becoming more comfortable with these new challenges. You could say I’m dwelling somewhere in that growth zone, unconsciously looking for the next box around the corner.

In the end, I think, limitations are a good thing . . . perhaps even necessary to developing creativity. So, bring on those boxes!

© 2008 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved. Please note that the image in this post may not be used without permission.