Glenwood Springs middle schoolers headed to global Destination Imagination event |

Glenwood Springs middle schoolers headed to global Destination Imagination event

Tatiana Flowers

Six middle school students from the Roaring Fork Valley won first place at a state problem-solving competition in Denver this month, and the winning title gives them the opportunity to take their fine arts skills to a bigger global tournament in Tennessee next month.

Cailey Cashion, Ava Hillbrand, Brianna Contreras, Katelyn Brennan, Ashley Brennan and Alicia Lowe, all in seventh and eighth grade, were each awarded individual medals and one team trophy for their first place title at the Destination Imagination state competition on April 7.

DI challenges teams of students to solve a given problem using a combination of teamwork, academic knowledge, communication and presentation skills, with a little bit of theatrics thrown in.

Five of the area team members go to St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Glenwood Springs, and one student attends the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork in Carbondale.

Alicia Lowe, 14, is the sole student who doesn’t attend St. Stephen’s. She says most of the teams she competed against had an upper hand at the competition when it came to timing because her team, coming from separate schools, had a hard time forming a team.

Many of the teams she competed against started working on their projects last September, but her team had only two months to complete their project. She says since the team came from two separate schools it was hard to find a schedule that worked for everybody, and scrambling to complete the project on top of schoolwork made the task especially difficult.

Kate Donelan, executive director for Destination Imagination Colorado, says 750 teams participated at the state level, and 40 of those came from the Western Slope.

There were six categories middle school-aged students could choose from, and the Roaring Fork Valley’s winning team chose fine arts, which meant they competed against 19 other teams who also chose that same category.

“The fact that they won first place in the fine arts challenge is extraordinary,” said Donelan, who’s been in her role for eight years and has overseen many of Colorado’s previous winning teams.

“Teams that qualify from Colorado to go to Tennessee generally do very well. We’re just a very competitive state,” she said.

However, Lowe says she wouldn’t have guessed it. “I was incredibly surprised because I was expecting like third or fourth place,” she said.

Lowe is unfortunately unable to attend the global competition because she has another obligation. Her brother competed at the global level years ago, and she says she’s envious of the events he was able to attend and the international connections he made.

The self-proclaimed “Egg Salad Sandwiches” team must raise close to $13,000 before it can participate at the global competition in May, and its team leader, Kelly Hillbrand, says she’s not worried.

“There are a lot of business partners around here that would support it,” said Hillbrand, who has previously led five other teams to the global tournament and remembers when one team was required to raise $20,000 and did so in less than two months.

Hillbrand said the Garfield County commissioners and local businesses were major supporters previously, and that this year’s team is receiving similar support already.

The county last week awarded the team a $5,000 grant, and Terra Energy Partners covered state tournament registration fees. The team plans to cook and sell hand-delivered breakfast burritos to cover the additional costs for the final competition.

“Honestly I’ve been doing this 14 years,” said Hillbrand.

“We really do it because it’s amazing how the kids have to work together to solve this problem, and there’s so many different personalities within a team.”

A teacher of more than 23 years, she says she increasingly sees how youth are lacking in independence and problem-solving skills with technology only enhancing that gap. She says she and other educators agree that students nowadays are using social media instead of interpersonal skills.

“This program allows students to work together in a team with students who are from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds to independently solve a problem,” she said.

“So kids who they wouldn’t normally hang out with, they’re coming together and seeing how they’re differences and similarities don’t really matter.”

Because of that, she encourages more students in the valley to participate in the competition and other programs like it. She says it not only teaches communication skills but also gives students a sense of independence since they’re only able to rely on each other while completing the project.

The global challenge will bring the best competitors from all over the world, Donelan said, naming Korea, Brazil, Guatemala, Qatar and others among the possibilities.

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