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.

Dec 022012

I’ve been an absentee blogger for a couple of weeks, I confess, because I’ve been involved in creative or creativity-promoting endeavors, in addition to getting ready for the holidays. If decorating for the holidays can be counted as a form of creativity, then I guess that’s one more creative activity that has been on my plate! Two craft shows, one very successful and the other decidedly less so, are behind me,  as well as two conferences at which my husband and I promoted the Destination Imagination program in Iowa.  This program, by the way, focuses on the process of teaching creative thinking, from imagination to innovation, for young people  from primary age through college and university age.

Yesterday I spent the entire day running a Destination Imagination facilitator workshop, which was both an emotionally exhilarating and a physically draining experience, the latter because I don’t normally spend all day on my feet.. We hosted a small but very energetic group of adults who were excited about learning how to be better Team Managers for their teams. We spent a lot of time, in particular, learning about the value of doing mini-challenges, short versions of on-the-spot problem-solving that the Destination Imagination program calls Instant Challenge. There are three types of Instant Challenges: performance-based, task-based and combination. Our group focused on task-based challenges and how to make materials work.

You might ask what learning how materials work  has to do with creativity, and the answer is everything. Artists, engineers and scientists focus on the business of knowing  the intended purposes of materials, and exploring alternative uses for them. On a small scale, Destination Imagination students do the same thing. Their materials could be straws, paper clips and rubber bands, but their real world counterparts are PVC pipe, cable wire and bungee cords. The program is predicated on the assumption that with practice, creative thinking is possible for everyone. I do believe, in fact, that the more you think sideways, the easier it becomes.

I chair a committee of Instant Challenge writers, all of whom are state Board members of a non-profit organization called Students for a Creative Iowa. This is the same organization that administrates Iowa’s Destination Imagination program. Every year we spend several months a year, writing practice Instant Challenges that we offer at a team workshop, and later post in our Instant Challenge Library. As we brainstorm ideas for Instant Challenges, we bounce these ideas off each other, and one Instant Challenge leads to another—an example of creative thinking becoming easier simply through practice! Anyone who is interested can download these challenges for free from the library. They are great to use in a classroom, an after-school program, a community group such as Scouts, or among homeschoolers.

Yesterday’s series of workshop mini-challenges involved solving a series of problems using items from a single pool of materials that grew smaller with each challenge. The materials included 10 plastic straws, 12 paper clips, 12 mailing labels, 10 toothpicks, 4 index cards, 5 sheets of 8-1/2 x 11-inch paper and 2 sheets of newspaper. Participants solved each challenge in six minutes or less. They built a lightweight tower that supported a ping pong ball, created a bridge that supported two ping pong balls, designed a path and propulsion system for a ping pong ball to roll into a cup without touching the ball itself, and developed a system to launch two ping pong balls down the length of a bridge they built without touching either the bridge or the balls. With each successful solution, everyone learned not only that there was no single solution that was the so-called correct answer, but also how to manipulate their materials in ways they were never designed to work. They also grew in confidence, a necessary component to taking risks, making discoveries, and developing creative solutions.

I like to think that the Destination Imagination program for which my husband and I volunteer is helping to develop the minds of young people who will be tomorrow’s creative problem-solvers, people who could be artists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and more. I also like to think that that I am one of those problem-solvers, in my own corner of the world where I create and sell handmade goods on Etsy. Below are examples of creative thinking on that same Web site. If you click on the large photo, you’ll be taken to Etsy, where you can click on individual thumbnails. Hooray for creativity!

Recycled/upcycled/repurposed materials, top to bottom row, left to right: zipper & wine cork, birch bark, vinyl records, magazines, old metal (tin, sugar bowl, vacuum tube, forks, spoon, springs, keys), coffee filters, cereal boxes, tennis ball, plastic spoons, silver spoons & forks, T-shirts, bottle corks, flour canister & found metal objects, cardboard, dryer lint, and pencils & book.

© 2012 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.


May 312012

When John and I return from Destination Imagination Global Finals each year, we are fired up about creativity in general, and are ready to start writing practice Instant Challenges that the participants of the Iowa affiliate of the program can use. If you have never heard of Destination Imagination, it is a creative problem-solving program for student teams from kindergarten through university age that emphasizes creativity, teamwork and problem-solving through the use of creative and critical thinking strategies. On September 1st each year, Destination Imagination releases six competitive Challenges, each with a specific academic focus: technical/mechanical, scientific, fine arts/theatrical, improvisational, structural, and community service. There is also a non-competitive Challenge called Rising Stars!® for primary age students. The teams, consisting of 2 to 7 students, work for several months on these Challenges, generating their own solution without Interference from adults or non-team members. This idea of non-Interference is a basic tenet of the Destination Imagination program; adults provide organizational guidance and teach general skills, but all ideas and the implementation of those ideas must come from the students.

This Iowa team from Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment placed 7th out of 46 teams in its secondary level Challenge, The Solar Stage.

Destination Imagination is not just about long-term problem-solving, but also about on-the-spot problem-solving. Students learn how to solve on-the-spot problems by practicing Instant Challenges about which they have no advance information. At competition, teams have 5 to 9 minutes to solve a performance or task-based Instant Challenge. Their Instant Challenge score is added to their Team Challenge score, and then the teams are ranked. The first place team in every Challenge, in every level (elementary, middle, and secondary), earns the right to advance to Global Finals.

This improvisational team from West Des Moines, Iowa took 1st place out of 46 teams in the secondary level of its Instant Challenge.

My husband and I have officiated as Instant Challenge Appraisers at the last seven Destination Imagination Global Finals competitions, enjoying the creative problem-solving skills of the best teams from around the world. This year was the biggest Global Finals event ever, with 1,276 teams competing from 45 states, 7 Canadian provinces and 13 countries. There are actually 30 countries besides the U.S. that participate in Destination Imagination, but not all of them compete at a tournament, instead choosing to focus on the creative problem-solving process within their schools or communities. Teams are managed by adult facilitators called Team Managers; the non-profit program as a whole is run by 135,000 volunteers from around the world. At the Global Finals tournament alone, it takes an enormous team of officials to evaluate Instant Challenge, since every team passes through the Humanities Building where Instant Challenge is held.

Instant Challenge Appraisers

John and I got involved in Destination Imagination many years ago, when our son was a participant and I managed his team. When he moved on to other activities, John continued as an Appraiser, the program’s designation for a scoring official. Both of us eventually became state Board members, with John serving as Iowa’s Affiliate Challenge Master for Instant Challenge, and me becoming Iowa’s Co-Affiliate Training Director. I focus on training and support for Coordinators, Team Managers and teams, while my counterpart (the other Iowa Affiliate Training Director) provides training for Challenge Masters and Appraisers. In reality, though, our roles overlap, since we both support each other. All of the Board members wear multiple hats, serving wherever they are needed. We are all friends, enjoying each other’s company whenever we get together, which is monthly from August through December, and almost weekly from January through April, Iowa’s competitive season.

Students for a Creative Iowa Board members, front row (left to right): Mary Koester, Judy Nolan, Kristie Rhysdam, Sharon Wallace, Alisha Heisterkamp, Jay Swords. Back row: Bruce Antion, John Nolan, Keith Kutz, Steve Klawonn, Brenda Kutz, Mark Wilkins. Missing: Sam Hapke and James Honzatko.

Not all of us volunteer at Global Finals, but this year Iowa was represented by five individuals—four in Instant Challenge, and one in the Score Room. Your Affiliate Director nominates you in December, and then you are invited to apply for a volunteer role. Volunteers are selected from the applications with the goal being to balance such factors as experience, geography, age, gender and even problem-solving styles. My own Global Finals Appraisal team consisted of two men (Doug Memering from Indiana and Jake Carleton from Ohio) and two women (Ramona Booth from Mississippi and myself) of various ages, each from a different part of the country, with a range of years in program experience. A couple of us were external thinkers and the other two were internal thinkers. This diversity reflects the same kind of diversity you would expect to find among students who are part of a typical Destination Imagination team.

Clockwise, left to right: Doug Memering (Indiana), Head Appraiser; Ramona Booth, Mississippi (Timekeeper), and Jake Carleton, Ohio (Runner).

Global Finals volunteers arrive in Knoxville, Tennessee on Monday through Wednesday the week before Memorial Day each year. Many of them serve as Team Challenge or Instant Challenge officials, but others help out with team registration, sales, or one of the activity camps held during the competition. The Knoxville Convention Center, for example, is a hub of activity. Students meet there to trade pins with each other in much the same way that Olympians trade pins; it is a way to make friends and learn about international cultures. An Innovation Expo takes place with such exhibitors as NASA, ThinkFun, Casio, Texas Instruments and others presenting interesting and useful information. Books, games, bumper stickers, pins and other souvenirs are sold downstairs in the Convention Center. This year 3M held an event called “Explore the Uncharted Challenge” which was so popular that it remained open one evening so that officials could participate. Teams were challenged to design and construct crafts to safely transport life-sustaining supplies to new planets.

Global Finals begins with Opening Ceremonies on Wednesday night at the Thompson-Boling Arena at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. It is the largest university arena in the nation, which is essential when you have to accommodate 8,000 students, their supporters and Team Managers, volunteers, VIPs and Destination Imagination staff members—altogether about 17,000 people. Opening ceremonies includes a fantastic laser show, as well as a Parade of Flags.

Both competitors and their supporters are able to choose from a wide range of activities from the time of their arrival to the day they depart, including a Family Camp, an Improv Fiesta, and the Team Managers & Officials Challenge.

Other events include a Global Pep Rally, a  Glo Ball for high school and university students, and the 3M International Costume Ball where thousands of participants dressed in duct tape creations.

Competition takes place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Teams perform their Team Challenge on one day, and their Instant Challenge on another day. My Appraisal team evaluated middle school projectOUTREACH® (community service) teams who performed an Instant Challenge called “Tapestry.” They had 9 minutes to weave a picture using 50 colored strips of fabric on a loom, and to design a performance selling the tapestry to the Appraisers. Then they had 2 minutes to act out a presentation that had a complete beginning, middle and ending. We were amazed by many performances, but especially by the first place team from Minnesota that used every strip of fabric to weave its tapestry, and then sang for its entire presentation. We also saw international teams, who were accompanied by a translator. This is always an interesting experience! If you watch the video below real carefully during the Instant Challenge section, you’ll see a team weaving cloth into the loom. This video also does a good job of summarizing the entire tournament experience.

What were our days like as volunteer Appraisers? To be honest, they were a strange combination of exhilaration and exhaustion. We rose at 5:00 every morning to shower, dress and eat breakfast, then boarded a bus at 7:00 for the Humanities Building. Lunch was provided on site, but we were often too busy to take more than 10 minutes to eat, and breaks fell by the wayside as we attempted to keep on schedule. Our feet ached and swelled, and on the last day of competition, when it was 95 degrees, there was no air conditioning in the building until noon. Despite the physical challenges, we felt privileged to be a part of the creative process going on around us. One of the really fun things to do before the teams competed on Thursday was to go from room to room, solving (or attempting to solve!) some of the same Challenges that the students would be doing. After 3 consecutive days of appraising, we took down our Challenge and said our good byes before we got ready for an officials’ reception dinner and Closing Ceremonies. Thank you, Knoxville—we had a great time, overall, and hope to be back next year!

Closing Ceremonies at Thompson-Boling Arena, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

© 2012 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved. Videos courtesy of Destination Imagination,