YOUNGSTOWN - It was an exercise of the mind that was flavored with creativity, and area students had a blast while devising colorful skits to solve practical problems.
The regional tournament of Destination Imagination was held Saturday on the campus of Youngstown State University, which included 45 teams for a total of 450 students ranging from 4 years to 12th grade from schools in Trumbull, Mahoning and Ashtabula counties.
Students had seven challenges to choose from, including technical, scientific, fine arts, improvisational, structural and service learning, and were placed in each category according to points assigned to them by appraisers.
Despite the competitive angle of the program, the appraisers are there not only to judge the performance but also to praise the students for their hard work.
Teams from Niles schools took second place in two categories, with the Niles McKinley High School team advancing to the state competition in April. Other winners included Lincoln K-8 in Warren and Howland Elementary.
"The kids are very excited; they're taking home trophies and medals and their hard work has absolutely paid off," said Niles team manager Beverly Begalla.
Fourth- and fifth-graders from Taft Elementary School in Youngstown, from left, Kiarra Pagan, Zachary Hoffman, Daevon McDowell, Liara Hopkins, Janiyah Sadler and Tribune Chronicle photos / Bonnie L. Hazen
Nakaia McRae, pose Saturday after a performance during the Destination Imagination regional tournament at Youngstown State University.
Begalla, who has been involved with the program for 14 years, said, "It definitely fosters critical thinking skills, business skills, language arts, sciences and social studies.
"It definitely encompasses all the academic areas and helps them learn to be better citizens, future businessmen and women, and better overall thinkers," she said.
"It's Olympics for the mind," said Destination Imagination regional director Cindy Capp. "They learn a lot of skills that they don't learn in school.''
H.C. Mines team manager Cindy Baer said she has supported the program ever since she started participating with her own children, now in their twenties, when they were in third grade.
"I'm such a fan of the program and how beneficial it is, especially for kids with a creative side,'' she said. ''When you're around a bunch of creative kids like this, it's a really fun atmosphere.''
Taft Elementary School students were displaying their creativity with a heavy topic: obesity.
The team of six from fourth and fifth grades had to create an informational skit and perform without speaking, and a strong visual presentation was required to impart their message.
"We're trying to stop obesity," Janiyah Sadler said.
"The challenge was that we had to make a mask that morphed, so we thought caterpillars because they morph into butterflies," team member Kiarra Pagan said. "We made an obese caterpillar. We tried to make him as fat as possible without stretching the shirt."
So how did the students choose who would play the part of the obese caterpillar?
"We actually picked the most funniest one. So yeah, it was Zachary (Hoffman)," Sadler said with a smile.
"I mostly act dumb most of the time," he smiled.
The appraisers commended the team on their efforts after the skit, admiring the colorful feathered masks that were color-coded to represent the cause each child chose - red for bullying, pink for breast cancer, black for violence and drug / alcohol abuse, green for recycling and gold for God.
Destination Imagination Youngstown city coordinator Lois Thornton said every year brings more challenges for the program.
"A lot of people don't think this academic tournament is important, but if they knew how much work that the kids put into it ... they give up play time, they give up personal time," she said. "These projects at an early age make the kids aware of community service and the need to develop more collaboration."
This year's tournament was put together with the efforts of around 100 volunteers, including Thornton, parents, teachers and even administrators. She said many students who have been out of the program come back to coach teams and become appraisers themselves.
She expressed her concern with the gradual decline of other academic competitions, such as science fairs and English festivals.
"But we keep this going so the kids can have an avenue to show their creativity, teamwork and organizational skills while having fun," she said.
The first-place winners from Saturday's regional event will head to the state tournament at Mount Vernon College in April. The first- and second-place winners there advance to global finals at the University of Tennessee in May.
"It's an incredible experience," Begalla said. "We have another month now to prepare again and try to knock them dead at state."