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,

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.