ANDOVER — Despite the unusual year, Andover will still be sending the state’s largest number of Destination Imagination teams to the virtual competition.
Destination Imagination is an educational nonprofit that allows students of all ages to build teams and compete to create a variety of projects.
Throughout the year, small teams of no more than seven students work together on their project. Their team manager, who is typically a parent or possibly a former participant, guides the students in understanding what needs to be done and helping schedule the meetings, said Maureen “Mo” Johnson, a team manager for her two elementary school-aged children’s teams.
For the past two years, a high school DI group has worked with the town and local environmentalists to create a website to educate the public about Andover’s endangered species. A middle school group is creating a documentary-style film about what happens when a law of science is broken.
The competition has strict rules — managers cannot assist on any part of the project that will be submitted, Johnson said.
“DI does more for my kids than traditional schooling because it forces them to work together and teaches them to fail, which is something we don’t really teach them,” she said.
In a nonpandemic year, there are about 400 to 700 teams across the state that compete, and Andover usually has a large showing with more than 30 teams. The town’s largest year was 2016 when 47 Andover teams competed. That same year Andover also had the largest number of teams competing from one town in the U.S. and around the world.
Like with so many things, the pandemic has forced teams to go virtual. Andover still has the largest number of teams in the state — 18 out of 142, said Stephanie Maze-Hsu, one of the town’s DI coordinators.
Students select one of six STEAM challenges in the areas of engineering, technical design, science, fine arts, improvisational theater, and service learning. Teams then work to create a solution over the course of six months.
The challenges ask students to do research, design technical devices and write a script for a skit that answers the questions posed by their challenge. Students have to write their own story and turn it into a play, as well as design all their costumes, props, sets, and devices without any interference from adults.
Because of the pandemic, live skits became video submissions.
“The biggest change this year was going from always being in person and being in tight groups to most meetings are on Zoom or other online platforms or sitting in circles in garages or outdoors feet away,” Maze-Hsu said.
Participating on a team helps build “a different type of communication skill because you are working together to build something,” said Akshay Godhani, a senior at Andover High School who participated in DI for years before becoming a team manager for his younger sister’s team this year. He was able to find his passion for engineering and building things through his years participating in DI.
Andover students had such a high participation in the program, that parents created a nonprofit called Challenge Me Inc. in 2011 to help organize the teams and supply both team managers and students with training.