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It all looked perfectly normal-seven young students sitting around a table eating pizza, talking, and laughing-until a closer look revealed blue ribbons and gold medals hanging around their necks, and that big first-place trophy in the middle of the table. Truth be told, they are a group of "Mad Scientists," and they have the certificates to prove it.
Meet Pearse Rothman, Aimee Chang, Melanie Siegel, Lucco Barry, Eric Dillner, John Kelly, and Sara Kelly. This seven-student team, all from grades 3 through 5, has been working together since September, under the guidance of Team Manager Tim O'Neill, its members challenging themselves to think creatively and to use their imaginations. There was a single thought in mind-to compete in and conquer Connecticut's 2014 Destination Imagination Tournament. Mission accomplished. First place won.
Destination Imagination (DI), according to its website, is a non-profit, volunteer-led, cause-driven organization.
"Its purpose is to inspire and equip students to become the next generation of innovators and leaders," the website states. "The Destination Imagination program encourages teams of learners to have fun, take risks, focus ,and frame challenges while incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the arts, and service learning. Participants learn patience, flexibility, persistence, ethics, respect for others and their ideas, and the collaborative problem solving process. Teams may showcase their solutions at a tournament."
Scranton's Mad Scientists were prepared. Their challenge? "Going to Extremes." The team had to learn about an extreme environment that exists in our universe; present a story about characters who attempt to adapt to conditions in order to survive; design and create extreme gear that is demonstrated by using technical methods; design and create a depiction of the extreme environment; and create and present two team choice elements that show off the team's interests, skills, areas of strength, and talents. Whew.
The team chose the floor of a volcano as its extreme environment. Their story involved a group touring Mt. Rainier in 1894. There was a journalist, an artist, a tour guide, an equipment manager, and other characters.
As part of the presentation, they built a volcano, "which erupted right on cue," O'Neill said.
The judges found their presentation had "nice helmets" and a "good story." Overall, they were praised as an "awesome team" with "good stage presence."
What part of their presentation was the most fun for them?
"Watching the volcano erupt," they all agreed.
The Mad Scientists were organized a year ago by Scranton Children's Librarian Jane Ash. She had attempted a workshop at which the Destination Imagination program was discussed. She wanted to try it at the library, and so did the DI organization, which usually works through schools.
"They were interesting in a pilot program at a library and gave us a start-up grant," she said.
She recruited O'Neill, who reaches chess at the library, as a team manager. Teams are limited to seven members, but a sponsoring organization can have more than one team. This team of 2014 Mad Scientists has five members from last year and two newcomers.
"I have to give the parents a great deal of credit. When we began in September, I explained that this would be a serious commitment. It would be every Monday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and attendance was critically important. The parents got the students here every week. This was a significant commitment on their part as well as the students' part," Ash said.
Was this more fun than school? "Yes!" they shouted in unison.