General guidance on how to turn the Central Challenge from a giant task into a done deal!


Advice from an International Challenge Master

….the Challenges are written to allow teams as much latitude as possible when solving them. This means that the definitions of some of the elements are left “vague” to allow teams to solve the Challenge any way that they wish. The Challenge can be solved using very simple technical devices or more complex ones. Those choices are up to the team.

There are 2 main principles that can be applied to solving any of the DI Challenges…..

Rule #1 states that if the Challenge (or the Rules of the Road) doesn’t say that you cannot do something, then it is safe to assume that you can do it.

Rule #2 states that if the Challenge (or the RotR) says that you cannot do something, then you cannot do it. The corollary to Rule #2 is that if the Challenge (or the RotR) say that you must do something, then you must do it.

However, it is important for the team to understand the scoring of the Challenge. There is another principle called Sutton’s Law….it says “go where the money is”. Willie Sutton was a bank robber and when asked why he robbed banks he said “because that’s where the money is”. The practical application of this is that your team must understand where the points are coming from. This is not so they can be more competitive but so they understand what they are being asked to do and how much emphasis is being placed on that aspect of the Challenge. Every subjectively scored aspect of each Challenge has a continuum that the Appraisers apply. At one end of the continuum will be very very simple solutions and at the other extreme will be very innovative ones. The simple solutions will usually receive scores on the lower end of the range while the very creative and innovative ones would be expected to receive scores at the higher end of the scale. Now, if we apply this to your question regarding the technical aspects of It’s Your

Move, then those solutions using very simple principles with minimal innovation, creativity, and/or integration (and sometimes complexity) would fall at the lower end of the scoring range. Those solutions demonstrating a high degree of creativity, etc. would hopefully be rewarded with a higher score. (Frank Begun)

Tips for Writing/Presenting the Team Challenge

Destination Imagination Production Checklist


  • What is it made out of?
  • Can it be easily seen/identified from 30 feet away
  • Does it make sense with the script and whole production?
  • Is it colorful? Should it be?
  • What purpose does the backdrop serve?
  • Can you do without one?
  • Can anything do double duty?
  • Maybe one look when you see it from the front and other from the back or light up from the back for another look
  • Is it a shape other than rectangular?


  • What is the reason this person is in the play?
  • What is his/her background?
  • Why is she doing what she does in the play?
  • Does it make sense? If not, why is he doing it?
  • Could you easily explain your character and what he or she is like in under a minute to someone else and have them understand the type of character you are
  • If people say “Huh?” when you explain your character, that should give you a clue.
  • What time frame and culture are your character from?
  • How old is he/she, does she have kids, does he have a job? What is his/her motivation for being in the play and doing what they do?
  • What type of clothes does the character wear?
  • How should he act? WHY??
  • Make the character believable within the time frame and culture and the whole feel of your play.
  • Does your character walk tall or slouch? How does he manipulate his hands? Is she an in-charge person or a follower?
  • What kind of body language does your character exhibit?
  • Will he or she exaggerate any characteristic?


  • Is regular unaltered street clothes/stuff you can buy at Goodwill constitute a costume?
  • If you could design the ideal costume for your character, what would it be? What would it be made out of?
  • Can you make this ideal costume? What will making it involve? What materials and what skills?
  • Does the costume make sense for your character? To more than just you. Does your team like the costume? Does it jive with the rest of the costumes in the performance?
  • What about shoes, hair, hats, wigs, glasses, socks, jewelry and accessories? What would your character wear? Dress your character from the ground up – ignore what you can easily get – decide what would look best on the character – use your imagination!
  • Make a costume that instantly tells the audience the type of character you are – make it easy on them – that way they can concentrate on the play. Besides, they only have a very few minutes to see your character, decide what your character is and his motivation AND watch the play and figure out what is going on –do you want the appraisers/audience to spend all their time trying to figure out your character and why you’re dressed like that – especially if it doesn’t make sense to them? Don’t make them think too much or be bewildered – there’s only a few minutes from beginning to end – make your best use of it.
  • At world, I saw one play where they put on the first act with regular clothes, but then in the second act – when it was set in “heaven” or at least when most of the characters were dead – they wore the same costumes – but now all in white
  • Make versatile clothing – can it serve more than one purpose?
  • Sweat pants & shirts – can paint them, attach things to them, can wear over something
  • Footwear – boots/shoes can be painted to match outfits or material of pants goes downs and covers boots – makes a smooth look
  • Make-up – what type of make-up is necessary to give your character the proper look? If the make-up is dark, can it be seen/distinguished at 10 feet? At 20 feet? Experiment to find the right look for your character – make-up can make the character.


  • What is the play about?
  • It must make the people and their plight come to life
  • Should it be humorous? Humor does sell. Puns sell very well – even if we moan over them. Some of the best performances are very quick-paced and are filled with puns about a given topic.
  • But drama can be VERY compelling – but it must be good – well written and well acted
  • RESEARCH YOUR TOPIC. Weave facts and interesting details into the play – shows you’ve done your work and can be interesting to appraisers.
  • Who is your audience? Are you playing to kids or adults? Who are the appraisers? You’ve got to keep the interest of your audience.
  • What is the action? What is the conflict – there must be a conflict.
  • How complex is the script? If it is too complex or too many subplots, no one will be able to follow the story in an 6-8-minute format.
  • Is it a re-write of a story that is already written? How creative is this?
  • Question every line of the play – does it add to the plot and finished product?
  • How many scene changes are involved in the play? Too many scenes can be a problem.
  • What is the ending? Does it grab you? Make you laugh? Make you think? Have a moral at the end? Does it build logically to a conclusion? The ending is the most important part – it wraps up all the ends and is the last impression you make on the appraisers.


  • How can an improv time be inserted into the play?
  • How can we decide how to use it creatively in the 1 minute given?


  • How should your character act? See character section. Decide how he should act and make that happen. If you don’t know how to do it, watch movies, ask a team member or experiment until the character is YOU.
  • How will she walk? What type of attitude does her walk show? What kind of attitude does his voice show?
  • Do you believe that the characters are who they are supposed to be?
  • What is the motivation of the character? Does that come through to the audience through the words you say, how you say them and what you do?
  • Body motions betray character
  • Accentuate with voice and body movements what you want the audience and appraisers to really see and understand and notice.
  • Acting is very difficult – unless you are a naturally-gifted actor, you will make mistakes and MUST be willing to take constructive criticism from your teammates.
  • Read the faces of other people (not on the team) – did they understand what you said or did or what the play is about?
  • Utilize special talent of team members.
  • Does each team member use crisp movements?
  • Are you exaggerating movements and words so that the audience hears it and understands it easily?
  • ENUNCIATE, ENUNCIATE, ENUNCIATE!!!! Nothing can be more important.


  • How should your characters talk? Do they live in Elizabethan England or are they cave men or baseball players from the 20s?
  • Do they have to have an accent? Can you hear/understand accents very well? Can other people understand your lines – not team members who know the play by heart?
  • Do the lines reflect what your character might say or how he might say it?
  • How might you decide how your character might speak? Different people on the team can read the lines in the way they think they should be read. Try the lines as a character from a play or a movie. Try the lines as a “set” character like a mobster or a Valley girl. You’ll find that the lines and the understanding of the motivation of the character will be completely different depending on how your lines are delivered and the character that it shows.
  • Will music or special effects enhance the performance or the understanding of the audience?
  • Can part of the lines be delivered as a song?
  • Can music or other sounds actually reveal what is happening in the play?

A Performance that Follows the DI Rules

  • Has anyone read the DI challenge rules and rule book?
  • Remember, the appraisers will be appraising on the rules and what they are bound to appraiser on. So if one part of your play is terrific, but you forgot to work on parts that are worth lots of points, then your score will be low.
  • Has everyone AT LEAST WEEKLY re-read the challenge rules? When you get deeper into the challenge solution, make sure you are addressing all the rules of the challenge.
  • Does your performance follow these rules

Script-Writing Tips From A to Z

  • A – Action, appropriate, keep the audience in mind
  • B – Backdrop, background of characters, balance, build logically to a conclusion
  • C – Conflict, costumes, number of scene changes, characterization
  • D – Dialogue
  • E – Expression, emotion, enunciation
  • F – Finish, fit in the performance area, function of each prop & backdrop
  • G – General tone of the script – drama or comedy, reality or fantasy
  • H – Humor – is it funny to all?
  • I – Innovation, imagery, improv, imagination (but it still has to make sense)
  • J – all team members join together to give input and write script
  • K – Knowledge of subject – research before and while writing script, keep the interest of the audience
  • L – where is the play located geographically, do props fit in limited space
  • M – moving in the presentation area, who moves where when? Music, moral at end?
  • N – accentuate what you want the appraisers/audience to notice
  • O – originality, opening, start with an outline
  • P – plot, plot, plot, parody, props, is your script practical?
  • Q – question each line/action to make sure it fits
  • R – resolution of conflict, are you taking a risk? rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
  • S – sound effects, number of scene changes, have you solved the challenge? Setting, does it tell a story? Special talents of team members
  • T – transitions between scenes (are they smooth), time period, technical aspects
  • U – understand the challenge and the characters, does every line have a use?
  • V – voices of the characters
  • W – write tight, write long first – tighten and cut it later
  • X – eXamine the script for eXcellent eXamples of eXessive eXaggeration
  • Y – yesterday – when the script was due!
  • Z – does it pass the ZZZZZZZ test – does the script put people to sleep?

Hints & Tips For Team Challenge Solutions 

  • Discuss Team Choice Elements early and often when writing the scripts and making the props, backdrops and costumes.
  • Attract attention through dramatic elements.
  • Use repetition to get the theme or point across.
  • Elaborate on characters and the details.
  • Make sure the appraisers can see any element you want appraised. Something in the far back of your backdrop or eclipsed by another prop or character will not be able to be seen during the presentation.
  • Make certain the theme is understood by the audience and appraisers.
  • “When in doubt, throw it out” applies to appropriateness of costumes, dialog, etc. Remember the general rule – would you want your grandma to see/hear this performance?
  • Be prepared for glitches and practice for Murphy’s Law.
  • Make & bring an emergency box. Include first aid supplies (band aids, etc.)
  • Practice in a simulated competition area. Practice entering from both sides and the back – be prepared no matter what the competition site looks like.
  • Make sure your team can compete in the smallest guaranteed area — and that they can stage from the left or right.
  • Practice timing the performance including setup.
  • Practice talking to the appraisers – kids are nervous on competition day – if they feel comfortable explaining where they got their ideas, who made what and how it was made, they will do better on competition day.
  • Make sure the team:
    • rereads the challenge – many times
    • asks for clarifications/reads the posted clarifications – each week
    • works on items that receive a score
    • stays within the rules (read the rule book)
    • fill out forms in advance & have the right number of copies at competitions
    • brings all forms and required items to the competition, including any clarifications your team has asked
  • After the presentation, make sure that the team talks with the appraisers and points out any specific ways that an element was created, any outstandingly creative objects or anything else they want to make sure the appraisers understand and see.

Big Stuff vs. Momentum

I forget the source on this, but I’ve heard a story about a speaker on time management who begins by taking a jar and saying it represents the available time. The speaker then places several large rocks in the jar — and asks “Is this jar is full?”

After about half the people raise their hands, the speaker takes a cup full of sand and pours it into the jar. This time, when he asks the question, only a few people raise their hands (I guess nobody likes to look dumb). The speaker then proceeds to pour a glass of water into the jar.

The speaker then asked “What is the lesson we learned from this exercise?” Somebody responded “You can always get more done in the available time if you’re organized”. To this, the speaker responded “That’s true, but the REAL lesson of this exercise is that you’d better start filling your jar with the big rocks!!”.

The reason I’m sharing this story is that I found the teams I managed were usually drawn to solve the “easy” or “fun” parts of their Challenge first. This often created significant constraints on how they would solve the “hard” parts of their Challenge. The “problem” is that trying to start with the “hard parts” might leave the team “stuck” or frustrated.

One of the Challenges a TM faces is making sure their team “strikes a balance” in how they fill their jar. They need to think about the “big rocks” (the “hard parts” or the high-scoring elements) early enough that they have “maximum flexibility” in how they attack those issues. Similarly, I’ve found that progress begets progress — by which I mean that if a team gets SOMETHING done, this often provides inspiration and energy to get other things done.

I often tried to “channel” this energy towards the hard/important bits — but would redirect the team to something “fun” or “easy” whenever it appeared they were losing momentum.

There isn’t a single “right answer” on this. However, I’ve had enough teams dismiss a REALLY creative approach to a high-scoring element simply because it wasn’t consistent with the approach adopted for a low-scoring element that they’d already completed that I tried to get the team to at least brainstorm the high-scoring elements before they built ANYTHING.

Motivation = Food

Our team set a goal of what they had to accomplish before they were allowed to eat. Sometimes they were eating on the way out the door, but usually they reached their goal for the meeting. At the beginning of the year their goals weren’t very big and then they got more serious as time went on.


My team loved to build things and hated doing research and writing – and we used that as an incentive too. No making of anything until the research and script are basically done. I think we all figure out what works for our teams and utilize that.


Solving a Challenge Using a Matrix

Although time consuming, another strategy to help create a team solution is to use a matrix to make the decision. The team lists the best solutions that they have brainstormed in the first column, and what they are attempting to accomplish (or what points they are attempting to achieve) across the top row. Pick a scale) I like 1-2-3: doesn’t work, works, great) and compare each idea the each criteria. (I have them hold up a finger with their vote and average each comparison.


At the end, we add up the points for each idea and unless it’s nearly a tie, it becomes obvious to everyone what needs to be done. The most difficult team I ever had, did have a 16 to 15 result on a crucial decision. We rethought the solution, adapting it to include elements of both ideas and everyone was ready to move on.

Criteria to Solve the Challenge

Which solution will: 

  • be the easiest to understand?
  • be the greatest improvement over what is presently done?
  • be the safest?
  • be the most acceptable?
  • be the most reliable to _____?
  • be the quickest to implement?
  • be the easiest to maintain?
  • take the least amount of new technology?
  • have the most potential for sustained success?
  • conserve the most materials?
  • prevent the most waste?
  • be the most long-lasting?
  • have the fewest adverse side effects?
  • utilize the most existing resources?
  • take the fewest people to implement?
  • be the most ethically sound?
  • be the most practical?
  • be the most cost effective?
  • be the most durable?
  • demand the least amount of administrative direction in order to continue working?
  • be the most feasible in terms of technology available?
  • require the least amount of workers?
  • be the easiest to regulate?
  • provide the most protection?
  • be the most educational?

(adapted from Future Problem Solvers)

These could be adapted to fit the type of problem the team is doing.

  Criteria 1 Criteria 2 Criteria 3 Criteria 4
Solution 1  
Solution 2  
Solution 3  
Solution 4  
Solution 5  

Theatre Training

Before the team begins solving their challenge take them backstage at any theatre production (community, college or HS production). Ask the backstage director/crew might be able to point out some particularly interesting “stagecraft” – how to paint cardboard so that it looks like wood, brick, velvet or rock; how to create cheap costumes that wow an audience; observe skills that have been used to give props a realistic appearance. Also have team members observe other theatre skills like enunciation and how important that is so that the appraisers hear every word. When they see a stage production, they can visualize how to get the biggest impact from their art, their ideas and their script. Practicing on a stage is helpful too. If one team member is in the audience, they can convey to their team members if they could hear and understand lines and see their art and backdrops.

Scavenger Hunt/Field Trip Idea

Take your team to visit four types of stores: craft supply store, hardware store, fabric store and office supply store for 30 minutes each.

The kids were armed with a list of questions to answer in each store, with the end product being a list of materials and supplies from which they can draw ideas when they are working on their solution during the year.


  • Hardware store only:
    • Name different sizes and/or types of lumber. (Look at different shapes.)
    • Name things that have to do with electricity.
  • Fabric store only:
    • Name different kinds of textiles (fabrics). Look for different textures and different properties.
    • Name items that can be used to embellish (decorate) other things.
  • Office supply store only:
    • Name different types of paper products. (Look for different textures and properties.)
    • Name items that can be used to embellish (decorate) other things.
  • Craft supply store only:
    • Name the different shapes of wood that you see.
    • Name items that can be used to embellish (decorate) other things.
  • All stores:
    • Name things used to fasten things together.
    • Name items that could be used for drawing, writing or painting.
    • Name items that could support things.
    • Name things that could be stapled.
    • Name different kinds of adhesives (glues).
    • Name things that could be glued.
    • Name things that could be nailed.
    • Name things that could be painted.
    • Name things that could be cut.
    • Name things that give off light or reflect light.
    • Name things that you see with holes in them.
    • Name things whose shape or size can be changed.
    • Name different ways of making things change color.

Arts & Crafts

Let kids experiment in arts and crafts. Give them arts & crafts materials and let them experiment. Don’t give them instructions unless they ask how to be taught a specific technique.

Give them paint and “things” to add to the paint – eggshells, coffee grounds, sand, glitter, etc. Let them mix it up and get messy and paint it on cardboard, wood, fabric, etc. Also painting utensil – my team did this while they were painting some box houses used in their props. They had a crappy paint brush and in frustration, one started pounding it on top of the “house” – and what do you know…next thing I hear is “Cool guys, come here – when you paint like this, it looks like stone!”

Storyline Idea

Our team has such trouble getting our storyline together. I found a blank adding machine roll tape. I had the kids draw their story idea like a comic strip – putting the story in sequence – I had each of them work in a separate point in the script of their own choosing. Then they put them all together, taped all the separate comic strips to the wall in sequence – and it took off from there like a rocket. Crayons can say so many things that words can’t.

You can also do this with a large newsprint pad. Once the scenes are drawn, the kids can put them on the wall in the order they choose.

Cost Issues

This can be tricky; there are lots of opinions on the subject. My idea is that brand new or used things the team went out and bought specifically for use in their solution must be charged out at the actual cost. If they buy a can of paint for $5 and use half of it, they need only charge out $2.50, not the entire $5. They only need to claim the cost of the actual amount/portion of something they used. On the other hand, if you buy a new lawnmower for $250 specifically for use in the team’s solution and then use only the wheels, it isn’t OK to decide the wheels are only 5% of the total weight of the lawnmower, charging out $12.50.

Old or used items you (or the neighbor) have lying around, we generally charge out at a fair rummage-sale price. If you have an old t-shirt that is still usable–that is, in good shape, then you have to figure out what it might sell for at a rummage sale (in its current condition) and charge it out accordingly. If the t-shirt is stained and has a hole in it, then I’d call it a rag and charge it out at 5 cents or call it junk and assign it no value. It wouldn’t be OK to take a good t-shirt and stain it or put a hole in it just so that you could charge it out at 5 cents though.

Something we’ve always struggled with is what to put for cost on broken items. My teams have used a lot of broken things–that is, broken for their original intended use. I once had a team that used the same broken cordless screwdriver in every solution they ever presented–for YEARS. It was a tradition; they deliberately designed it into every presentation they did–sort of a good luck charm. The thing was broken before they got their hands on it the first time, then it got more dilapidated every year they used it. My co-TM/husband always thought it was crazy to assign it any value at all. He claimed no one except DI members would give you a cent for it. Good point; however, we felt better giving it some value, so we rather arbitrarily assigned it a junk value of 4 or 5 dollars the first year, then sort of depreciated it out (50 cents a year as I recall) in subsequent years. Other people will suggest different things in this situation; this is simply what my kids did. Never had anyone challenge them on it.

True junk items–empty cans or milk jugs, pantyhose with runs in them, cardboard shipping cartons from an appliance, rusty nails found at a construction site–can be charged out as junk with no value, although my teams tend to give a really cheap value, even to true junk, just to play it safe.

The thing to remember when costing things out is that the idea of a cost limit is to make it possible for any team with the same budget to produce pretty much the same solution. That means that if a team member’s Uncle Harry has a hardware store and is willing to sell the team items at his cost, you can accept the good deal (to save money), but must list a cost for which the item would sell to the general public. Only if anyone else could go into Uncle Harry’s store and acquire the same item at the same price can you claim the discounted price on your cost forms.

If the team is in a discount store and finds a deal where spray paint is selling for, say, 10 for a dollar–and anyone who happened into the store could buy it for that price–then my advice is to stock up on spray paint and list the actual price paid on your cost form. That’s called good shopping! That’s also the kind of thing team managers learn to do all year around–buying on speculation just in case the team decides some day to use spray paint. (Don’t kid yourself–EVERY team decides to use spray paint!)

So if the things you bought or acquired would be pretty much generally available at a given price to any team who happened by at the time, then that’s the price you use, even if it so happens you’re the lucky team who got there first.

Let’s say your team is using seashells in their solution and you live by the ocean. It’s likely that your team can acquire seashells for nothing by walking the beach and picking them up. So could any other team that lives or visits near you. On the other hand, my teams in South Dakota would have to go to a shop and pay $3-4 a piece for seashells. That doesn’t mean your team has to cost them out at $3-4, since seashells are generally available to any other team in your area who walks the beach. I don’t think, though, that it would be OK for my team to list seashells as free using the argument that YOUR team can get them on the beach. If we had to buy them, we should list the cost of acquiring them. Lucky teams have team members who make a point of picking up things like this when they’re on vacation or who will ask Aunt Martha for those she picked up on her vacation back in ’82.

Encourage your kids to look at everything as potential raw material for their problem solution. Mine have rooted in garbage in bars (looking for a large number of 20 oz. soda bottles); rummaged in rusting junk piles on local farms (with permission); dug around in neighbors’ basements (permission needed here too); watched the ground around them as they walked around; toted off broken lawnmowers, bicycles, and alarm clocks. One of their triumphs was built out of one of those old fake grass covered banana trees you used to see in supermarkets. They saw it in storage and asked for it; the store manager said, “Just don’t bring it back.” Gave that a value of $2, I recall, even though they acquired it for nothing.

Brainstorming for Failure

Every team should brainstorm ways to “failure proof” your team! You CAN and should plan for the little and major disasters that could happen. The best way to do so is to be prepared for all the ‘what ifs and know that you will miss a few of them.

Have the team:

  • List all the things that could go wrong!
  • Use team brainstorming to think of all the things that might go wrong!
  • Write everything down!
  • Ask open ended questions to prompt ideas!
  • Do not edit ideas at the time.
  • Determine how the potential problems are related to each other!
  • Group the problems from the brainstorming e.g. props, people, equipment
  • Add new things to your list!
  • Look for additions to your list
  • Combine items the team thinks are really the same
  • Do not delete anything unless the team is UNANIMOUS!
  • Rank the problems for the trouble they could cause!
  • Rank the potential problems for the seriousness of the result
  • Remind the team that small things can sometimes have disastrous results
  • Review each group and make any adjustments
  • Think of all the ways to prevent the problems or minimize them!
  • For each problem ask “if this happens we could….?”
  • Discuss problems that cannot be prevented, e.g. weather, crowd noise, etc.
  • Encourage your team to HAVE FUN, and be creative with their ideas…ad-libbing always scores well!
  • Prepare a plan of action!
  • Include who, what, when, where and how!
  • Review the “disaster plan” periodically
  • Cause ‘spontaneous’ mishaps during practice to allow your team to practice the plan! A good example is deliberately leaving the batteries out of the tape player, or knocking over a prop during a rehearsal.

DO IT!! As with everything in life success comes with practice…Practice….PRACTICE!!!

Certainly, a key member of the team (which is ANY member!) not being at the tournament would be something the team should prepare for!!!

Crunch Time Addition – Positive Reinforcement Bowl

As we head towards tournament day, some much closer than others, I thought I’d pass on a idea that worked for my team of 8th graders last year. Our last two weeks before regional competition was stressful- no required technical element, no one knew their part, costumes not done, and everyone feeling like they were the only one working…team morale? bickering, put downs, and cliques. Remembering pysch. 101, I was thinking that the team members themselves needed to give each other less criticism (negative reinforcement) and more compliments (positive reinforcement). Instead of complaining that the technical element wasn’t getting done, or criticizing a teammate for missing a cue, the team should notice who and when good things were happening. And so was born the “positive reinforcement bowl.”

I bought small, individually wrapped candy (Rolos, Starburst, individually wrapped Life Savers etc. the smaller the better, but nothing messy) and put them in a large bowl, the “positive reinforcement bowl.” Whenever one team member saw another team member making a positive contribution, they could get two pieces of candy- one for the contributor and one for themselves and tell the contributor specifically what they liked as they ate the candy. We

had more compliments team member to team member the first meeting we used the “PRB” then we had the entire season before. Not only do you get rewarded for a doing a good job, but you also get rewarded for noticing when other people are doing a good job. It’s another good skill to have.

I know that the PRB made an impression, because the team has asked for it again. I’m just trying to time it so we don’t start gorging ourselves on candy (TM’s good use the PRB too) any longer than has an optimum impact.

Balsa Costs & Hints

I would like some suggestions on how to much to budget for purchasing balsa wood for a team considering Triplicity. The team is made of 5th graders who just want to have fun.

How much it costs to purchase enough balsa is a tricky question- a LOT depends on just how much the kids build…and the thing is everything they build…well they DO have to break it! SO…yes it can add up but there are ways to help cut costs. The years that balsa cost the most for our young teams was when we bought every stick at a hobby store. Prices ranged from 30-50 cents per stick and there was variable consistency between stores. (We didn’t even know where balsa came from to begin with- or that there was a difference between suppliers!) I don’t know for sure what current costs are running- but over past the past few years, buying balsa in bulk has averaged about 14-25 cents per stick. To buy in bulk means purchasing from some company such as Balsa USA, SIG Mftg, Superior (which is a CA supplier), or Hobby Lobby or Tower Hobbies through a catalogue. There are numerous others. Another thing to think about is that your order really should be inspected and weighed by the kids and some team-decided system developed to care for their materials. I REALLY recommend reading Bill Allen’s Structure Team Manager Guide

The one thing that really helped us in St Louis was to purchase our balsa in German town section of town- at Schaeffer Hobbies (they have since opened some new stores around the county). Schaeffer was very supportive- let the kids bring in their scale and allowed them to weigh sometimes 500 sticks at a time. Not every place will let you do that… and most hobby stores don’t carry a supply of 1/8 x 1/8 (a basic size used over the years-the store also carries other size sticks) that would number even a 100- so to find a place that regularly stocked 300-500 sticks (they got theirs from SIG) was a true miracle!

If your kids are “just wanting to have fun” then maybe just purchasing a selection of sizes in maybe 25 sticks per size would work out for you. Once the kids have their design set and they know what weight and size of stick they REALLY need most- then the task will get a lot tougher.

I encourage you to order a Pitsco Catalogue if you don’t have one already- address/phone is available at the link given above. SIG also has a catalogue- it’s info is probably on that same page.

More Balsa Hints

The Structure Challenge (like all Challenges) really requires the team to do some “skills development” before they can solve it well. There has always been some disagreement about what represents “interference” when helping a structure team learn how to design and build strong structures. I tried to put together a guide to help Structure TMs a couple of years ago. A revised version is available at Structure Team Manager Guide.

This guide was NOT developed with any particular Challenge in mind — so there shouldn’t be anything in there that could be considered Interference. Similarly, there will be some things included in this years Challenge that are not considered in that guide. Hopefully, it will give you some ideas on structure-oriented activities you might want to do with your team.

As an aside, I get a “password dialog” when I try to access that site (even though I’m assured there is no password). I find that hitting “cancel” to the password request gets me to the site.

Technical Challenge Hints

It has been my experience as a TM for many years–always in a technical problem–that generally technical devices are judged based on their technical complexity, not on their innovation or creativity, whatever the challenge requirements say. My teams have tried elegant and simple; and they have tried messy and complicated. Messy and complicated has scored better every time, even when it wasn’t as innovative or as creative. They also quit cleaning up their wiring–tacking everything down so it looks neat and eliminating excess length. The more wires it looked like, the more impressed the judges were–every time and at every level. Ditto gears, pulleys, switches, etc. The more parts and pieces it looks like you have–a la Rube Goldberg–the better the score. They’ve joked about hanging a few extra non-functional pulleys, etc. on things just for looks, although they haven’t actually done it—yet.

I remember in particular a challenge they where something called “functional engineering” was scored. We were never able to determine just what this was, until at the state tournament they heard a judge explain to another team that it meant “electrical and mechanical complexity.” Wish they could’ve gotten that information BEFORE the tournament–but that’s another story. They decided that that’s what innovation and creativity meant too–and they were right more than they were wrong.

Once a team put together a motor that nudged another motor into service.

The second motor flipped a switch that started another motor which–I am not making this up–flipped another switch. Goal: turn on a light! They could’ve wired the whole thing in 10 minutes if they’d been going for simple. The judges loved it! There you go.

More Technical Challenge Stuff

Ok, so I’ve been doing “technical element” challenges going on 4 years now and this is what I’ve discovered:

Shakespeare: The technical element was a setting sun that by the end of our performance dropped behind the backdrop. The design and engineering was pretty simple…gravity was what made it all work together, it was kind of like an hour glass… by dropping weight from a can the weight was able to decrease and push the sun over…it was simple and elegant and did quite well at regional.

Music: We tried the simple theory again with a revolving umbrella and hearts dangling from it showing love between 2 characters…again we used a motor driven by gravity…it was the simplest concept…what made it score well was the creativity and idea behind it though…it fit well into what we were doing and looked nice and not much cost…it scored great at regional and states

Anonymous: Last year we kicked the “simple theory” to the curb but kept the creativity, innovation, and elegance…I think…we had a wall mask that completed simple facial expressions but it was done by a gravity driven motor concept but we had to connect it all together so that all the motions could happen together but it was the same concept as the year before but became more complex when we wanted it to complete more complex tasks…it was the hardest thing to I’d every made but worked great…it did great at tournaments and we got 2 Creativity Awards and it did well at Global too…

So, my guess would be to go with a little MORE complexity than just one or two tasks but don’t just put in things that aren’t needed…having extra stuff that isn’t needed I don’t agree with but if everything in your complex machine is needed and help the device work the way you want it then keep it. BUT keep the creativity and innovation in there to…if it integrates well and has creative aspects that adds to the story or whatever then to me those are the best technical devices because they obviously took time, thought, and effort to pull off…TAKE RISKS TOO! …

Technical Devices-More

I find that the simple approaches tend to be rewarded in the objective points. That is, they tend to get the ball in the hole whereas more complex solutions often tend to break or don’t perform well under pressure. I think the kids need to be rewarded in the subjective points for risk taking and extending their knowledge and skills.

A simple solution that is “all they could think of” does not represent creativity or innovation. I like to look for “innovative simplifications”. That is, a solution that used simplification to meet cost, safety, or other constraints.

Here is the foundation for the discussion of “innovation” I use when training my appraisers:


May be the complex combination or integration of multiple objects or processes.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

For instance a Rube Goldberg device or perhaps the team used a motorized gate with a light-activated switch where a manual one would have been more reliable and less complex.


The MacGuyver Factor – using a chewing gum wrapper to defeat the security system at Fort Knox.

“I never would have thought of using an X as a Y!” (e.g., X=dryer vent tubing, Y=egg decelerator)


“We wanted to use a 5Kw, 230V, 3500 rpm permanent magnet motor but the cheapest we could find was $295 so we refurbished this electric (internal combustion engines are a no-no) leaf blower motor we got at a garage sale for $5.”

Used innovation to mitigate cost, safety, and/or other constraints.

I also discuss “simply elegant” vs. “overly complex”.

Simple Machines

These are some websites that give help teaching team members about simple machines.

BrainPop: Simple Machines –
Here the BrainPop format is applied to simple machines with its animated graphics and colorful format. Of course there’s a pop quiz and a movie explaining the science behind the machines. Levers and inclined planes are featured here.

Inventor’s Toolbox –   
Part of the “Exploring Leonardo” site, Inventor’s Toolbox covers the basics of simple machines as well as more sophisticated kinds of machines, and then applies them in examples of inventions by Leonardo himself and by viewing the “Gadget Anatomy” page where students can study complex machines.

InQuiry Almanack: Simple Machines –
Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute spotlights the six basic machines and the science behind each, with extra information on each machine and an occasional demonstration of a specific principal. This page has an attractive design and is appropriate for elementary aged students.

Mechanisms and Simple Machines – 
Carnegie Mellon University offers this college-level explanation of simple machines and the principles of physics which take place behind their operation. The jargon is fairly technical and the sketches help to demonstrate the concepts being presented. Ideal for older students.

Moving Along with Simple Machines –
The teachers of Henry County, Georgia designed this four week elementary unit on simple machines, with very detailed lesson ideas, creative activities for demonstrating principles of simple machines, and connections across the curriculum to make learning more meaningful for students.

Simple Machines –
original link is dead – use Wayback Machine:
This ThinkQuest entry on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH takes students through explanations, pictures and animations of simple machines. Of particular interest to students will be the instructions for building a working elevator out of K’Nex building blocks.

Simple Machines Made Simpler –
SmartTown presents this brightly adorned, musically inclined site about each of the simple machines with crisp explanations and animated examples of each. There’s an interactive quiz at the end which could offer more student feedback than it does, but it nonetheless does test students on basic understandings of machines and work.

Toting the Log and Lifting the Bale – 
This workshop presented by the Science Teachers Association of Texas is all plain text and requires lots of scrolling. But the wealth of simple classroom applications here you can use to promote an understanding of simple machines is so worthwhile, I decided to include it in this week’s picks. When you have time to kick back and survey all the ideas contained herein, do so!

A Few Words from the Appraisers

-Don’t dumb down your solution to meet some perceived idea of your appraisers level of understanding. What you should do is make sure your solution is clearly visible to the appraisers. Remember, they only see your solution one time and have a brief time to talk with your afterwards.

– Do your research by performing in front before someone who has never seen your team before (family, teachers, neighbors) and then ask them about some of the things you think they should have noticed. (Be careful to keep this at research and not interference!)

-Are there creative ways you can make sure these things are noticed rather than the obvious route of pointing and saying “Now that’s a discovery!” What are your strongest points and how can you make the weaker things stronger? Do you have too much going on? Are things hidden from the appraisers and audience? Can you be heard?

-Also, remember to especially point out things that need to be looked at up close when you are talking to the appraisers. Remember that appraisers specialize, so ask who is judging the technical element. This way you can spend the limited time where it will do the most good.

-Spread out your team during the talk session. If everyone is talking to only 1 or 2 of the appraisers, that means there are a bunch of appraisers who are not getting the info they need to evaluate your score. Listen for hints. When an appraiser says, “Who can tell me about…?” they are most probably looking for information because they are appraising that item. Make sure the right team members are talking to the right appraisers. NEVER let an appraiser wander around alone after your performance – they are not just curious visitors, they have work to do and you can help them!

-I believe that complex is good if it is elegant. I believe that simple or complex can both be creative, and either can decidedly common place – each must be evaluated on its own merits. I believe that every appraiser has their own belief system, so remember that what I say may not apply to any other appraiser you meet.

-Also – a caution. Don’t assume that “performance” appraisers are not technical or that “technical” appraisers don’t understand the fine and performing arts. As a techie, I love appraising the more theatrical challenges, because it is so different from my job. My husband, an artist, loves the technical challenges. With the new challenges, you can expect that variety will be required not only from the teams, but from the appraisal teams as well.

On the appraiser’s training and experience…

-Please try and remember that you and your team have been working on this challenge for months, the appraisers have likely had no more than one training session. Hopefully, they’ve read the challenge several times. But that’s as good as it gets.

-On performance day, they will have 8 minutes to watch your performance, and about 10 minutes to talk with you, record your scores, write their comments on sticky notes and then move on to the next team. It goes like that all day long, it’s very hectic and stressful. But most of the time it’s an awful lot of fun and incredibly rewarding.

-The appraisers, even old guys like me, are usually more nervous than you are. We are incredibly worried that we might mess up something that will hurt one of teams.

-It’s not as bad as it sounds. When the challenge is well formulated and written, the appraisers assignments and score sheets take this inexperience into account, and have tasks broken up into somewhat manageable pieces that a person can quickly learn and do very well with very little training.

-First time appraisers are not only trying to figure out just what the challenge is, but what they are supposed to do. In our region we’ve always had a good mix of returning and new appraisers, so the old hands help out the newbies and even when things go wrong, they have always worked out in the end. I’ll save my worst horror story for later.

-So how does this affect you?

-Don’t be afraid to ask the appraisers questions if you don’t think something was incorrectly scored. There have been a handful of times where teams have disputed something the appraisers have done. Sometimes the teams were right, sometimes not. But we always addressed the problem and fixed it where necessary. Just ask your questions in a polite, non- confrontational manner. I’ve never met an appraiser that wasn’t trying to do the right thing. Most will bend over backwards to double check rules to make sure the kids are fairly treated.

-Do your homework and know the rules. – Read everything. I’ve have been painfully disappointed several times over the years to see teams lose points for things that are really obvious. I’ve had post-performance conversations with more than one TM that had nothing more than a copy of the challenge and had never seen the general rules of the road. This just isn’t right. Every challenge I’ve ever seen has statement that says you must read the general rules. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir. If you you’re involved enough to be on this mailing list, you’re probably not going to make an error like that.

-After the performance point out and explain your solutions to the appraisers, especially the stuff you are really proud of. Adults are just not as creative at figuring out how you did something, as you were when you did it. If you don’t tell us how you did it, we might not give you as high a score as you deserve. In past years some teams have made photo albums of themselves building and working on their solutions and brought them along to show the appraisers after the performance. We really don’t have as much time as we’d like to really enjoy these, but they are really great.

Don’t worry about being the first performer of the day…

– We hold the score sheets for the first three performances. At that time there is a scheduled break where the appraisers can get together and make sure they all understand how things work and that they are correctly scoring things.

Don’t put too much emphasis on your raw scores…

-Especially if are performing early in the day. No matter how good (or bad) the performance, you’ll probably receive subjective scores somewhere in the middle of the range. The appraisers must do this. They need to leave themselves scoring room for later performing teams that may be better or worse. Everything is relative for subjective scores.

On playing to the appraisers….

Sorry, I’ve never seen it have any effect. We’re not that dumb ya’ know.

On Audience participation….

-Same here, all that organized cheering just doesn’t have any effect. Most of the time we’re so involved in your performance that we don’t even notice the audience is there. Please reference Rules of the Road – Specific rules related to this now

-On the other hand, if you’re in the audience. Cheer for everyone. When the timer/announcer says “Good Morning”, return the greeting. It raises the energy level for everyone and we all have a lot more fun.

The Subjective Part of Appraisers

We as TM need to prepare teams during the process of creating for the inevitability of subjective appraisals. Every appraiser faces difficult questions like– what is a creative costume? Is it one that uses common materials in a different way? Is it one that uses a sign around your neck that says “dog” and you behaviors convince the appraisers what you are? Remember, that appraisers can only give scores for what they see. And they are interested in giving your team the most points possible.

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