Destination Imagination Helps Kids Problem Solve

A local couple donates their time to help students explore science.
Jennifer Hanson and Matt Thell give back through Destination Imagination.

As a veterinarian and a chemical engineer, respectively, it’s no surprise that education is important to Jennifer Hanson and Matt Thell. Jennifer works at Rockford Road Animal Hospital and Matt works in international strategy at General Mills.

Both got to where they are, in part, because of science. Jennifer is from the west suburbs, and the couple moved to Plymouth 10 years ago when they were looking for an area to settle that was close to their offices. Volunteering is important to them, and with the role education has played in their lives, working with kids is their favorite way to give back.

“Both of us have chosen careers that involve science,” Jennifer says. “Encouraging that in younger kids is a fun way to spend our time.”

Matt is on the board of directors at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, a science museum focusing on energy, and he also works on the young professional advisory council at the Walker Art Center. Both volunteer at the state science bowl competition.

They also spend a large part of their volunteer time each year working on Destination Imagination, a worldwide competition that focuses on creativity and problem solving.

Jennifer and Matt took part in Destination Imagination when they were in school, back when it was called Odyssey of the Mind. They realized what a valuable program it is for young people and wanted to get involved as adult volunteers.

“I like it because it has challenges that focus on science, engineering, arts or theater, but they are all about creative problem solving,” Matt says. “It really marries the things I enjoy.”

Destination Imagination features teams of up to seven students. Participants range from preschoolers all the way to university students, with the primary participant range being third- through 12th-graders. Each team selects one problem to solve from the following categories: technical, scientific, structural, fine arts, improvisational and service learning/ project outreach.

Teams then compete against other groups in the category they have chosen. For example, the technical category for the 2014–2015 school year was “creature feature.” Each team that selected this category had to build a creature using technical methods to perform actions, present a story with that character, use technical methods to showcase a world where the story is set, and create and present two elements that showed off the team’s interest, skills, areas of strength and talents.

The other categories feature completely different challenges that incorporate a similar mix of academic areas—in other words, showcasing a variety of skills to solve a problem.

Participating teams get their challenge in November and have until the regional competition in February to work on their presentation. They present at the competition in front of a set of judges. The judges select the top teams to move on to a state competition, and the winners of the April state competition move on to the international competition in Knoxville, Tenn., in May.

“I’m a big fan of having kids find their place and things that make them happy,” Matt says. “I think Destination Imagination does a nice job of embracing kids in all the ways they want to participate.”

Matt serves as a state co-challenge master in his volunteer role. This means he organizes volunteers, teams and coaches, and also helps coordinate several of the challenges for the state competition in February. Jennifer works as an appraiser, so she judges the competition. They give up about four Saturdays every year between February and April, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think we benefited from adults doing the same types of things when we were growing up, and we’ve seen the great impact that can have,” Jennifer says. “It is a fun way to get out of the day-to-day, see something different and interact with kids.”

The Wayzata School District had four teams compete at Global Finals this past May. Learn more here.