Launching themselves into creativity

Contest has teams devising solutions to odd problems


Carolyn Conn loaded tennis balls into a plastic cup at the end of a homemade wooden catapult.

Prettany Overman scrutinized a bicycle wheel that she transformed into a working Ferris wheel.

Andrew Ellis and Tim Odell fit plastic guardrails on a small replica of a roller coaster.

The diverse assortment of projects the Bel Air Middle School pupils are working on are part of an extracurricular activity designed to challenge their creativity and build problem-solving skills. The program is called Destination ImagiNation, and middle-schoolers across the county are taking part, preparing for a regional competition Saturday at Bel Air Middle.

The competition will feature competitors from Harford and Cecil counties. Winners from eight regional events will participate in the state competition at Towson University in April. And about 30 teams from Maryland will take part in the "global" competition in May in Knoxville, Tenn.

More than 50 teams -- consisting of five to seven pupils -- from Harford County schools will compete in one of five challenge categories: mechanical, science, fine arts, improvisation and architectural design.

Pupils have worked on their projects for weeks, and as the regional competition nears, anticipation and anxiety are high.

"It's made me more outgoing and has given me a way to meet new friends," said 13-year-old Lindsey Kasecamp. "It's such a rush to do it, but it's a great relief when it's over."

The project began in September when materials were posted online for the teams, which paid $145 each or $265 for a group of five teams. From October to January, the teams studied the materials and selected from the five categories of challenges, under the guidance of a teacher who acts as manager. The pupils put in about eight hours a week -- after school and on Saturday mornings -- for several weeks working on their projects.

They also practice the concepts of their chosen category with "instant challenges," in which teams are given a problem to solve on the spot. For example, they might be instructed to create a wind machine using a piece of string, a mailing label, a drinking straw, a cup and a paperclip, in a limited time.

"They get five to eight minutes to devise a workable solution," said Michelle Spaulding of Maryland Creative Problem Solvers Inc., an organization that runs Destination ImagiNation in Maryland. "And it can be a real nail-biting experience."

On a recent Saturday morning, three of the Bel Air Middle teams were hard at work on their projects.

In a long hallway, one team -- made up of eighth-grader Casey Butler, seventh-grader Carolyn, and sixth-graders Kelsey Thom and twins Kelly and Torrie Manning -- was working on a project titled "Back at You."

Their task was to create a device that sends and retrieves tennis balls, while fashioning a story about someone or something that has gone away and come back.

One after another, the girls sat on the floor loading balls and trying to fling them into a homemade hoop about a dozen feet away. Each one made several shots and adjusted the catapult just so, before the balls flew in rapid succession into the hoop.

They first tried to use an air compressor before deciding a catapult was a better solution.

"We researched catapults to find the one we all thought would work best," said 12-year-old Carolyn. "There are no wrong ideas, but I'm happy with our finished project."

Inside a nearby classroom, Prettany, a seventh-grader, and sixth-graders Andrew and Tim were busy working on "Kidz Rulz."

"This challenge allows the kids to take one of Newton's laws of motion and make it work wrong, or the opposite of how it should work," said Eric Bennett, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Bel Air Middle, who serves as manager for the group.

Bennett's job as manager isn't to help the kids with their challenge but instead to ask questions and make sure they are applying logic to the task.

"The biggest obstacle for the kids is that they have to learn that they can't be successful if they don't work as a team," said Bennett. "They have to know that their way is not always the best way. Teams that learn this from the start are successful. Teams that think it has to be one way or no way don't do well."

The pupils working under Bennett were busy with their projects, scrutinizing each step before continuing.

For example, Prettany busied herself with the Ferris wheel made from a bicycle wheel, children's scissors with brightly colored handles and purple duct tape. She was trying to attach her amusement park ride to an old record player that would serve as a spinner for the wheel. She stopped frequently to study the problem before starting again.

"Kids live in a world where we have rules for everything we do," the 12-year-old said. "This problem lets us see what it would feel like to change those rules."

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