PUBLIC ADVOCACY UPDATE: Full STEAM Ahead - Destination Imagination

By Lisa Bushey
Associate Executive Director, Public Advocacy and Communications

For the intellectually curious interested in innovative pathways to expand students’ interest in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), here’s an innovation initiative perhaps unfamiliar to you. Recently, NSBA was invited to gain backstage access to “Destination Imagination” (DI) to learn what DI is, how it works, and why it matters.

DI is complex and not easily distilled into a simple sound bite. It is STEAM on steroids for students from elementary to university levels: After rounds of regional competition, DI’s culminating tournament activity, “Global Finals,” is a multi-day marathon of mind-bending challenges that tap students’ ability to lead, problem-solve, think creatively, and work cooperatively with others.

How do I adequately explain how students of all ages from across the U.S. and abroad – 17,000 in total – connect in a shared STEAM learning experience that crosses geographic, cultural, and language barriers?

NSBA Destination Imagination Closing Ceremony

How do I share a narrative visual of middle school students who built a working “farm” and colorful crops, hand-wiring their moving “tractor” and “truck”? Or the theater students who scripted their own play and created a wheel within set panels to rotate a scene?

NSBA Destination Imagination Closing Ceremony

How do I explain that after a challenge occurs, adult “appraisers” – not judges, mind you – rise from their seats to engage individually with students and deconstruct and discuss what was presented? How do I put into words the unexpected level of social maturity I saw, in which the challenges, team-building, and event structure seemingly level the playing field between students and adults? DI runs with only a small core staff – under 30! – and a cadre of unpaid volunteers who compete to earn their spots.

NSBA Destination Innovation PinsIn the park-like setting where colorfully attired DI attendees visit booths, who, I wonder, is the well-spoken man with the rainbow moustache who rushes over to hand me a cartoon-like colorful pin of, well, himself? My DI guide tells me it is “Dr. Frank,” a medical doctor who has donated his time to DI for years, and wants to introduce me to the DI practice of “pin exchange” that goes on among U.S. and international students.

Later that day, when other backstage guests are invited to partake in challenges*, who is “Fritz”? He and his wife are Mayo Clinic doctors and event sponsors, along with Disney, 3M, NatGeo, and other corporate and private donors. They all tuck away for an arduous weekend in a no-frills motel with fellow challenge writers to script original challenges for DI each year.

I asked one of the fellow backstage attendees to share his main takeaway. He said: “I’ve come here for me; I do it to remember why I do what I do. It builds my mind and replenishes my energy.” Why does the unpaid clinical psychology professor who was my primary guide volunteer? “It started with my kids. I did this with them and for them. Now I do this for other kids. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years.” Discover DI at

*Author’s note: How did my personal DI challenges fare? Across two teams, we created, designed, and promoted a new product with speed and grace, but with the exception of a card tower that (astonishingly!) had height and stability, a too-high skyscraper toppled, a challenge I plan to re-do until I get it right!

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