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How DI Prepares Students for the Real World

A team manager and technologist explains how DI instills students with the skills they need to succeed in today's information

Dragons to the 7th Power, a team from NISD pose for a picture after the

presentation of their solution to the 2015 Fine Arts Challenge Feary Tales.

What is DI?  As a Destination Imagination team manager, I get asked that question a lot.  Frankly, I struggle coming up with a good answer.  That’s because DI is many things - science, technology, engineering, performing arts, public speaking and improvisation to name just a few.  DI just doesn’t fit into the 25 words or less category.  So explaining “what it is” is tough, but explaining “what it does” is not.


DI prepares kids for the real world by teaching them “how to think,” not “what to think.”  


My background is in software development.  I started as a programmer and now work for a leading internet travel company managing software development teams who build websites and ecommerce systems.  The things DI teaches are exactly the skills I want the people who are on my team to have.  


Can they analyze and interpret information reliably and understand the goal?  Do they approach a problem from multiple angles, exploring many possible solutions before they arrive at a decision?  Can they generate new ideas and build on the ideas of others openly and collaboratively?  When the going gets tough, do they stay calm and collected and work through the problem without getting caught up in the moment?


DI gives students experience in all those areas through two different challenges:  central and instant.  These two challenge types are very different, but mirror what I and so many others who work in technology experience every day.  


The Central Challenge is essentially a project.  Students get a 4-5 page document that specifies what the team must do to complete their solution to the challenge.  Challenges fall into one of seven categories (Technical, Engineering, Science, Fine Arts, Improv, Service Learning, Early Learning).  Students in the technical challenge might be tasked with building a vehicle with two modes of propulsion.  A team in the engineering challenge might have to build a structure that can hold large weights while doubling as a musical instrument.


The challenges are always unusual and fun.  Solutions are presented as a 5-8 minute skit that incorporates the core requirements spelled out in the challenge.  Student teams must develop the solutions on their own.  Their ideas, their work, no exceptions.  


The process is very similar to how things work in the real world.  My technology team works with business and operations teams to determine what customers want and how a software product should work.  The business teams write a set of requirements that the technology team uses as a guide to build the software.  This is not unique to software development.  Whether it’s designing a new air bag system, a new toy or a website:  teams brainstorm, analyze, collaborate and design based on a “problem” or “challenge.”  


That analysis and interpretation a DI Team performs when they receive their written challenge is no different than what many of us do out in the real world every day.  It’s the process of taking an idea, generating more ideas and arriving at a solution.  


It’s about more than just ideas, of course.  DI gives kids exposure to project management.  Time management and planning are critical as they build the sets, props, costumes and .  It also means planning, managing time, succeeding, failing and all sorts of other experiences that we as adults deal with every day in our work life.  


Once the team’s solution is complete, they compete at the regional tournament where they present their solution to a group of trained appraisers.  The top teams in each challenge and competition level advance to the state competition for a chance to compete at the global level.  Performance reviews and competition are another parallel to the “real world.”


Get assigned a project with requirements.  Brainstorm ideas.  Work as a team to decide what your final project will be.  Write it.  Design it.  Build it.  Present it for evaluation.  That’s what DI does.


The other way that DI trains kids for the real world is through Instant Challenge.  Instant Challenge, or “IC” is a format where kids do not know in advance what they will be doing.  The team enters a room and is given a one-page challenge which could be anything from writing and performing a skit to solving a logic puzzle or building a structure from everyday materials.  IC is designed to test their critical thinking, decision making and teamwork in a pressure-packed situation.  


This aspect of DI prepares students to be better at crisis management.  Instant Challenges require students to think on their feet, make lightning fast decisions and work as a team under extreme pressure.  Writing a skit or building a tower out of straws that will hold a tennis ball might sound simple, but when you only have 3-5 minutes to plan and execute, the pressure is enormous.  


This skill is directly translatable to the world we live in and jobs we all perform.  Whether you’re an astronaut dealing with faulty hardware, a computer networking engineer whose network just went down or a diplomat in a tough negotiation:  the ability to handle stress and work through a problem using critical thinking and smart decision making is invaluable.  


To me, that’s what DI is all about.  It’s a celebration of creativity, but so much more.  DI teaches skills that will make your child more successful in whatever career they choose.  The exact skills that successful companies are looking for every day.  When your child goes to their first job interview and the interviewer asks them “Tell me about a time when you were under pressure and how you handled it?,” they’ll know exactly what to say.

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