Karthika Nair and I were under pressure. We had accepted an “Instant Challenge” from Destination Imagination and had 6 minutes to build the tallest structure we could, using an odd assortment of implements. Pipe cleaners, coffee stirrers and one unsharpened pencil were among the “MacGyver-like” materials we had to work with. Karthika wanted me to experience a D.I. activity firsthand. She hopes the program will someday be introduced to District 91 students.

Destination Imagination has been teaching young people creativity, teamwork and problem-solving for 27 years. It started at the University of Tennessee and spread to all 50 states and 34 countries. Over 15 million students have participated. Karthika was initiated in her sophomore year at Proviso Math & Science Academy.

Her seven member team took on a DI scientific challenge that required artistic, acting and engineering skills. They composed a back story about a disabled nurse and constructed a robot that passed out medication to patients. It won first place at the state competition and qualified them for the DI Global Finals at the University of Tennessee.

Ten thousand dollars were needed to finance the week-long trip to the university and it was raised by one of their PMSA supporters, Dr. Daniels. The mother of their late-teacher, Tom Dix, who had first mentored them in DI, also made the journey. Karthika was thrilled to meet kids from other countries.

In junior year, the composition of the team changed and they took on a completely different task, a community service challenge. Karthika and her teammates organized a breast cancer walk. They spent months in preparation for the event but only 15 walkers turned out on a gloomy freezing day.

The team lugged hundreds of hot dogs, brownies and cookies, along with bracelets and ribbons back to Karthika’s Forest Park building. They were searching for a place to donate the excess, when a building resident offered to buy some food for a party they were hosting. The team set up shop in the lobby and the condo dwellers came to their rescue. They raised $375 in donations.

DI has been such a positive experience for Karthika, she wants to share it with others. She and her friend, Ariana Vargas, helped start the DI program in the Melrose Park schools. They gave hands-on help to grade-schoolers on Wednesdays and Saturdays. DI was the perfect program to express themselves, Karthika said. It also taught them to have each other’s backs. You can’t be mean in DI.

OK. Our 6 minutes are up. Our tower is 12 inches high Ð so that’s 12 points. We get another 20 points because it can stand on either end. I’ll give us 10 more for creativity and 20 points for how well we worked together.

If only we could have figured out how to use the pipe cleaners.

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.