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Not Your Standard Science Fair. There's Comedy! Theater! Singing!

Solving an academic or scientific problem is the challenge. Having fun while competing is the payoff. We visit a Destination Imagination tournament, where learning is the not-so-hidden agenda.

It’s Destination Imagination tournament day at St. Patrick’s Catholic school in northeast Dallas. Hundreds of people pack the place on this Saturday - kids, parents, teachers, volunteers. 

They’re in the Dallas-Richardson competition, Dal-Rich for short, which includes some small districts and private schools.  Officials say it’s one of the group’s smallest tournaments. Janet Compton explains “small” is a relative term.

“We have over 3,000 teams in Texas. We have over a quarter of the teams in the United States. Dal-Rich had, I believe, 90 teams today. They are larger than a third of the states in the United States as far as the teams that compete.” 

Compton’s a DI co-director for  the Mid Cities region. She’s been involved now 20 years, with her husband, sons and daughter.

“I love it," says Compton. "If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t still be doing it when I don’t have kids actually participating in it.”  

Destination Imagination encourages school teams of seven kids or so to tackle problems using STEAM techniques - science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Categories include technical, fine arts or scientific.  University Park Elementary’s 3rd grade Lumber Penguins haves entered the Structure category.

“My name is Kalder Korte. My name is Kyle Barron.”

With only wood, glue and fishing line, Kalder’s and Kyle’s team must build a structure no heavier than 4.2 ounces, no taller than 9 inches. Doug Epperson’s been a Destination Imagination volunteer for 23 years.

“If you’ll put it on the scale for me,” Epperson tells the boys,  “I’m reading  84.9 grams. Do you agree with that?”  

Both boys say“Yes.” Epperson gives them more instructions about their little wooden item. “Put it on this device over here. Do you remember how tall it’s supposed to be?”

“Between 7.5 and 9 inches,” they respond.

“You got it,” says Epperson.           

The balsa rectangle with tiny wood splints held with fishing line meets requirements. Sometimes teams must break parts off to meet standards.

The structure will soon be tested as each team drops weights on it. The lighter and smaller it is while holding great weight can help make it a winner.

“And without further delay, we have the team from University Park,” announces today’s Structure MC.

Destination Imagination wants to teach more than engineering skills to science geeks. It wants to develop well-rounded kids. So, as parents and competitors watch Kyle and his teammate add weights to their structure, the rest of the team acts out a skit they wrote and rehearsed. That’s all part of the contest. And it’s one reason why team co-manager Irene Nigaglioni likes this organization.

“Twenty-first century skills are everything about communication, presentation, collaboration, teamwork,” says Nigaglioni, “and that’s 100% what DI does. Even the improvisation and presentation. The fact they can get in front of all these adults and do this without any embarrassment. I mean, it teaches them skills that are going to last forever.”

The team’s 3-ounce balsa structure, by the way, held 165 pounds and never cracked, but Kyle didn’t want to risk adding more weight. Other structures took more, helping their teams win out. But after the competition, for fun, Kyle wanted to see what the structure could really take. So he piled on the weights. 165 pounds was a no brainer. Then 200, and up to 250. He added more, to 300 pounds and above, as those watching waited for a loud snap and collapse. That little wood structure ended up taking more than twice what it did in competition -  430 pounds - and still didn’t crack. Janet Compton expects the team will be back, because there’s more to all this than winning.

“Yes it’s great to win but we want to instill knowledge and the process of learning and how to be creative, to give them all the different steps so they can be successful.”

For teams that did win, the state tournament is scheduled next month in Pflugerville, with the May global match in Tennessee. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.