Douglas Draughn looked like he was headed to the best kind of Halloween party.
The eighth-grader from Sky Vista Middle School sported an oversized novelty bow tie, a pair of rainbow suspenders and a hat shaped like some kind of mutant sea creature. The wardrobe wasn't the only sign of celebration. As he mingled with his fellow Sky Vista students in the hallways of Grandview High School on March 21, Draughn's face beamed with the kind of smile that most middle-schoolers reserve for a Saturday spent at an amusement park.
But Draughn and his peers weren't spending their Saturday relaxing. They were engaged in a serious academic competition, one that required impressive amounts of academic know-how, critical thinking and, above all, creativity.
Draughn and his peers were among the more than 800 Cherry Creek students making up the 144 teams that participated in the district's 2015 Destination Imagination tournament, an academic competition that mixes the most rigorous lessons in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum with the most imaginative kind of creative thinking.
“Destination Imagination helps kids grow into being leaders of the future while teaching them about STEM."
-- Maureen Dewar, regional director for the Cherry Creek School District Destination Imagination tournament.
The Sky Vista group had just participated in the tournament's technical competition for middle-schoolers, a test that saw the group design and build their own "creature." The group from Sky Vista built a robotic tapeworm, a working machine that could "destroy, communicate and build."
"To communicate, it had lights that blinked," Draughn said, his word tumbling over each other as his excitement grew. "We asked it if it could knock down a wall, and it blinked and beeped."
The group's artistic approach to completing a very technical assignment wasn't at all rare at the district's Destination Imagination event, the fourth-largest contest of its kind in the state. At all levels and in all categories, students fused science with creativity. That pairing gets to the heart of the larger Destination Imagination program, an international program that engages thousands of students every school year. The problem-solving program stresses divergent thinking and teamwork, skills that come from competing to fill specific prompts.
"Destination Imagination helps kids grow into being leaders of the future while teaching them about STEM," said Maureen Dewar, regional director for the Cherry Creek event. "There are performing arts categories, structural, engineering, fine arts, improvisation, community service project learning … For me, the value is teaching these students what they can be in the future. They don't have to fit into a box; what they think is valid and it counts."
For students at the district competition, those lessons came through the sheer range of activities. Students from elementary, middle and high schools across Cherry Creek came together to mount original skits on stage. They unveiled home-made robots and sound machines. They took part in improv showcases and offered solutions for specific community needs.
It all made for an impressive scope of activity. The Cherry Creek tournament was just the first step for many students – the winners at the regional competition will go on to the state championship tournament with the chance to qualify for the global finals to be held at the University of Tennessee in May.
While the promise of a successful showing at state and national competitions figured in to the students' projects, the real draw was the value of the activities themselves. That much was clear from the enthusiasm and joy that came through as students spoke about the care and thought they put into their projects.
Students from the Horizon Middle School team that competed in the fine arts segment of the contest showed off their homemade costumes and props with no small amount of pride. They had come together to create an original stage production titled "Captain Amnesia and the People Who Remember," a story that explored themes of fear and bravery through full-dimensional characters and carefully plotted storylines.
"What's fun for me is that we got to come up with our own story and use our own props and make a bunch of stuff. It was ours," said Lydia Bennett, 14. "We get to show people our creativity and how we work as a team."