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Innovation, creativity and a trip to global competition

A robot made from spare model airplane parts helps to convince Albert Einstein that his inventions were used more for good than bad, and a worldwide dust bowl occurs that leads to destruction, regrowth, and a robot that helps to save the world.

No, this is not the plot of a summer blockbuster movie. These ideas are part of two stories that will be performed by 14 creative Pagosa students at the upcoming Destination ImagiNation global competition in Knoxville, Tenn.

Destination ImagiNation, or DI, is the core program of Destination ImagiNation Inc., a nonprofit organization that has a presence in over 30 countries around the world. DI was started as Odyssey of the Mind, an after-school program where students work in teams to solve mental challenges and present their solutions at regional, state and global tournaments. One of the goals of DI is to “revitalize the educational experience of students around the world.”

Colorado has 280 DI teams that earned a trip to the DI global championship and they will be the second largest state delegation at DI, second only to Texas. In a state with so many students involved, competition is fierce. Pagosa Springs sent five teams to the southwest Colorado regional qualifying tournament that included teams from Bayfield, Durango, Mancos and Dolores. At that tournament, four of the Pagosa teams placed first in their divisions. The team that finished second was beaten only by another Pagosa Springs team.

With all five Pagosa DI teams qualifying for the state tournament, the chances were good that at least one would earn a trip to the global tournament that will take place in Knoxville May 26–29. Of the 27 teams from southwest Colorado, only three teams made it to the final round: two teams from Pagosa and a team from Durango. Each team is made up of seven students who will compete in a battle of wits and creativity against students from around the world.

The Backtrackers comprises four core students who have been participating in DI since fifth grade, two students who joined the team this year, and one student in his second year. The students on the team range in age from 11 to 14 and are all seventh- and eighth-graders. At DI tournaments, the age of the oldest team member determines the bracket they compete in.

Mikaila Marchand remembers in detail how she found out about DI in fifth grade. “There was an announcement on the intercom that said they need two more girls to even out a DI team,” she recalls. She ran with another friend to the office to call their parents for permission to stay after school for practice. Mikaila remembers her mother asking, “Another after-school activity?” to which she replied, “Of course, mom!” She received permission and has been participating in DI for four years along with Maya Novak-Herzog, Allison Kuhns and Thane Trumble. Brayden Mitchell joined the Backtrackers last year, and Jacob Manzanares and Jesse Long both joined this year.

Unlike a school sports season during which athletes train and compete in weekly meets, the students in DI began practicing for the season in October of 2009 and didn’t see competition until March of this year.

“It’s an enormous time commitment with delayed gratification,” says Marcy Mitchell, a team manager along with Kelly Trumble. Mitchell and Trumble explain that parents can only supervise and offer moral support. They can’t touch any of the sets or devices that students create as part of their story challenge.

There are actually five challenges in DI competitions and the Backtrackers have completed four of them. At DI globals, the team will perform an eight-minute story and will be judged on their design and innovation, completion of emotions, integrating set pieces into each other, scene changes and other requirements for the competition.

DI teams have to spend less than $150 on the parts and accessories for their presentations, and everything must be inventoried in detail and a team must show where the parts came from. Some pieces of the set were taken from trash bins, and other parts created from junk. The Backtrackers used parts from an old remote control fire truck and modified it to become a rolling robot with a nodding head. A computer screen is made out of recycled fabric that was spray-painted black and mounted on a frame of Popsicle sticks. A robot chest plate was cleverly made from hundreds of crushed soda cans that are attached with safety pins to furniture batting that was salvaged from the trash, and the creation won the DaVinci award for innovation at the regional championship.

The project incorporated research about robotic technology, art, physics and music, all of which are integrated into the story. Each student brought a special talent to the team, with Mikaila acting as the captain. “We get scored down if people aren’t working together,” she explains. Some team members are good at writing and others specialize in the robot mechanics. Thane was the robot engineer, Jacob worked on the set backdrop along with Maya, who also worked on the story, Jesse is the robot voice, Allison helped where she was needed, and Brayden was, “the all-around guy” who worked on the story and the computer design.

Another part of the DI competition is an Instant Challenge, or IC. A team is presented with a performance task, has five minutes to prepare and two minutes to attempt to perform the task.

Although the Backtrackers have been to the state tournament several times, this will be their first trip to the global competition. When asked what made the difference this year in earning the trip, the answer was talent and experience.

“We’ve seen bigger ideas every year,” said Mitchell. “The kids are going out of the box farther,” adds Trumble.

And what have the Backtrackers learned from the experience?

“How to use power tools,” exclaims Maya. Because parents can’t help and things needed to be cut, the students learned to do all the work themselves. “If you don’t like to work hard for long periods of time, don’t do DI,” recommends Brayden.

“Before DI, I was scared to be myself around other people,” shares Mikaila. “Now, I can be myself and my grades have even gotten better.”

“I learned that I’m funny,” chimes in Jacob, and the rest of the team laughs and agrees.

In addition to the experience of the core members and the addition of new talent, the Backtrackers also reveal that another Pagosa team, the Imaginators, set the bar high for everyone else. All but one of the Imaginators will be attending DI globals for the third straight year, which reflects on the depth of this team of ninth- and 10th-graders.

The Imaginators includes Isaiah Thompson, Brooke Hampton, Gabby Pajak, Brandan Eggleston, Garek Erskine, Dean Hampton and Zach Brookens. The team members admit that having already been to globals and seeing the caliber of the top competitors has inspired them to be better. The team says that after seeing the level of detail at last year’s global tournament, this year’s presentation is more sophisticated and elaborate with not as much childish humor.

The story the Imaginators came up with involves a climate change that leads to a worldwide dust bowl where plants cannot grow and are all man-made. A robot is created that can send out sonic waves to make the plants grow again, but things go out of control and dense forests take over the planet. In one scene, when team members are falling down a hole, the falling effect is shown by quickly raising a sheet painted with vines, giving the appearance of downward motion. As the team climbs out of the hole, the sheet is slowly lowered.

The backdrop of dust bowl and jungle is cleverly designed to rotate and display both scenes as needed. A tall frame made of PVC pipe supports more than a dozen 6 foot high slats, with a jungle scene painted on one face that rotates to a dry, desert scene on another face. The entire set must be taken apart, packed and shipped to Knoxville where it will be reconstructed for the competition. Team managers Julia Hampton and Dawn Eggleston have gathered large cardboard appliance boxes to use for shipping.

The Imaginators have been together for several years in DI and have intentions to perform as a group through the rest of high school.

“We know each other and work well together,” they say, and even joke about all attending the same university so they can keep the team together even longer.

When asked how they would describe DI to others, the words that come out are math, science, creativity, creative problem solving, art, singing and drama. “We have a couple of songs in our presentation,” says Isaiah.

The robot that this team developed is constructed from wheels from a model airplane, a motor from an old drill, a servo from the plane, and a lot of homemade parts to make it look like a robot. The team’s best finish at DI globals was 25 out of 75 in their division. Last year they placed 36th, and this year they hope to finish in the top 10.

On the rear of the Backtracker’s DI shirts, there is a quote from Albert Einstein that reads, “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

The Backtrackers and Imaginators will see how far they can stretch their genius when they compete in Knoxville the last week of May.

For more information about Destination ImagiNation and how to contribute or get involved, visit the local website, PagosaDI.com.