In the fall of 2019, fifth grade teacher Betsy Agee decided to put together a Destination Imagination (DI) team at Crozet Elementary School. The School had never had a DI team before, but Agee had seen the challenge-based, problem-solving competitions in action at other schools and thought, “Why not here?”
“Eagle Time is our after-school enrichment program run by the PTO, and so I asked Principal Crummie if I could offer a class where we would explore preparing for the competition to see what the interest level was,” said Agee.
Crummie gave the green light and Agee and parent volunteer Hope Farrar (who teaches kindergarten at the school) ended up running two classes—one for third through fifth graders and another for younger students—where they introduced the kids to the improvisational, brainstorming kinds of activities that are the hallmark of DI clubs nationwide. “The students loved it and both groups committed to attempting the regional competition scheduled for March,” said Agee.
“They could select from among seven categories of challenges, from environmental to scientific to fine arts, and the older group picked what I thought was the most difficult—a majority of them wanted to tackle the engineering challenge.” At that point the group learned a lesson in the art of compromise. Once student adamantly wanted to choose the fine arts challenge, which was more performance-based, while the others preferred engineering.
“So, they all agreed together that as long as they put a really strong performance element into the engineering challenge, they could go with engineering,” said Agee. “They came up with a great skit idea and incorporated it into their presentation.”
On competition day, March 7, the team had to present, in front of a panel of judges and an audience, their solution to an engineering problem called “In the Cards,” involving a weight-bearing design that used mathematical formulas. (Agee’s not allowed to divulge the specifics of the challenge until the season is officially over.) Agee said all of the teams in that category struggled with various obstacles in the problem. “But our team incorporated the skit into their eight-minute performance, and that element really pulled it out for them. It was so unique.”
In addition to the prepared challenge, the team also had to solve an instant challenge. “They go into a room with just judges, no audience, and they’re given a task, a problem to solve,” said Agee. “They had three minutes to come up with a solution and four minutes to present it on the spot with the materials they were given.” Agee said the students were very nervous beforehand, but afterwards they wanted to do another one.
The combination of the prepared and instant challenge scores determined their overall final ranking. The team won first place at the regional competition, which, because the state competition had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, automatically qualified them for the global competition. (The in-person global event has since been cancelled.)
“It was great to see their energy and how they worked together,” said Agee. “As we were packing up their materials at regionals, they were already planning modifications to their presentation for the next time.” She was proud of how they learned teamwork, “because there were some alpha personalities among the group, so we were always talking about how to make sure everybody’s voice was heard.” Agee said that all of the returning students expressed interest in doing DI again next year, so it sounds like she’s created a winning tradition right off the bat.
Sounds like a winner
Two sisters at WAHS, Kimball and Darrah Sheehan, won first prize at the Virginia Regional Science Fair in March for their project that explored ways for ultrasound to be more effective in treating malignant brain tumors. As they tested methods of sonodynamic therapy, the students focused on a biomedical engineering aspect of the problem by designing and building a 3D printed structure for the ultrasound device to sit in to allow it to better focus on the tumor.
The Sheehans had participated in science fair last year with a dermatology project, the results of which were ultimately published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, but this year’s idea came from an unusual source. “We got inspired for this project at the Virginia Festival of the Book last spring after talking with John Grisham, who happened to be sitting at our table during one of the events,” said Darrah, a sophomore. “We expressed our interest in STEM to him and he told us about what he considers his most important book, The Tumor, which is about using sound to treat cancer, and that really fascinated us and got us started on the project.”
“We downloaded the book from Amazon and read it right when we got home,” said Kimball, a junior, “and then we reached out to the [Charlottesville-based] Focused Ultrasound Foundation expressing our interest in working with them.” That interaction led to the pair’s collaboration with a minimally invasive neurosurgery lab team at U.Va. that was studying sonodynamic therapy, and then to their project.
“The results are so promising,” said Kimball. “Right now it’s in the early stages, but it has so much promise to treat serious medical disorders. The re-occurrence rate for glioblastoma tumors is nearly 100%, so current methods are not working and there needs to be something new. I would love for us to help extend that research.” Both sisters said they hope to keep working with the lab this summer, and are interested in majoring in biomedical engineering in college.
Carol Stutzman is the science fair advisor at WAHS who helped the Sheehans on their path to first place. Stutzman teaches chemistry, but, really, she is more like a science ambassador, opening doors and inviting students to explore their interests. When she began teaching at Western ten years ago, there was little in the way of “extra” science presence, and she set about slowly changing that. “I wanted to provide more opportunities for kids who wanted to dig in and do more science,” she said, “so we created a Science Honor Society chapter and an American Chemical Society club to get kids interested, and we did some demo days and I started promoting science fair.”
Stutzman highlights for students the unusually quick path to serious competition in this area. “In most areas students have to do a school-based fair, then a county fair and so on, but here any student who creates a viable project can go right to regionals, and then the grand prize winners qualify automatically for the international fair, which is a great pathway,” she said. She notes that participating in Science Fair is a lot of work for students outside their own classwork, and she promotes it in the spring so those who want to can work on it over the summer.
Stutzman keeps up with the voluminous paperwork associated with entering the Fair, and serves as a mock judge to help students with their presentations, which have to be succinct and attention-grabbing. In the seven years she’s been science fair advisor, three WAHS students have gone on to the international competition. “Many of the students have told me that in their college interviews, their fair projects were all the interviewers wanted to talk about,” she said. After regionals, the Sheehan sisters competed in a virtual state fair with a six-minute audio recording and an abstract with data, and they received an honorable mention for their project.
Congratulations, Sheehan power duo!