Destination Imagination gives a new meaning to “student-led.”

This year, two groups of Lincoln Elementary School students qualified for the Destination Imagination Global Finals tournament by their own brain power. The DI program encourages kindergarten through university students to solve open-ended academic challenges by using their own creativity.

“This is a complement to what they’re learning in class. The projects they work on are entirely the students’ creation so they have to do all the problem solving on their own,” said Amanda Harrison, USD 418 elementary library media specialist. “Some kids excel at that naturally and others struggle with not having a lot of instruction from an adult. It’s a good creative practice to take ownership of what they’re doing and make it happen with their group.”

Small groups of elementary and middle school students in USD 418 have prepared DI projects from October to April each year since 2011. Teams from Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt Elementary Schools and McPherson Middle School placed at the statewide tournament in Lawrence on April 1, with two Lincoln teams taking first place in their categories.

For more than 30 years, nonprofit Destination Imagination has hosted tournaments around the world for more than 1.5 million participants. Each year, the organization announces challenges for teams of up to seven participants. Students improve their creative and critical thinking and curiosity, build on their strengths, learn how to design and manage a project, and gain the skills needed for today’s workforce in each of the unique challenges.

“The different challenges tap into different skills,” Harrison said. “Typically, all of the performances have a presentation element to it, but the projects themselves can be very different. The engineering and technical challenges are more scientific, as compared to a service learning challenge where they have to raise money for a cause.”

After two to four months of preparation, teams present their challenge solutions at a local tournament. If they qualify at the state level, the team is invited to compete at global finals.

Though two McPherson teams qualified to attend the global finals tournament in Knoxville, Tennessee, they won’t attend this year and will look to a future tournament instead.

“It’s very expensive to attend, and you only have a short time to decide and get the money together,” Harrison said. “We talked with the parents and we won’t go this year, but we’ll plan on saving to attend next time.”

Four years ago, Roosevelt Elementary School teacher Carmen Zeisler took a team to global finals, so teams hope to repeat the experience with some preparation.

For Harrison, the number of high-placing teams from McPherson speaks volumes about the district’s attention to student learning.

“I think that we’ve really set a standard of kids thinking about their learning and their education,” Harrison said. “We don’t do a lot of rote learning and we challenge them to think about what they’re learning and why it’s important.”