Skip to main content

KNOXVILLE — Students involved in Destination ImagiNation compete to solve “challenges.” This summer when they come to Knoxville for the Global Finals, these students could help scientists studying one of the most important health challenges facing youth today: obesity.

Using a three-year $625,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a team of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professors will study childhood obesity and gather data from Destination ImagiNation participants.

Destination ImagiNation (DI), based in New Jersey, is a worldwide problem-solving competition that holds its Global Finals in Knoxville each summer. About 8,500 students participated last year. The nonprofit organization estimates 3 million people worldwide have been involved over the past 25 years.

While obesity among adults is being classified as a public health epidemic and the numbers of overweight children are increasing, the researchers noticed an overwhelming percentage of children who attended the DI competition in Knoxville were normal weight.

Most efforts so far to fight obesity have focused on changing eating habits and increasing exercise, but this project will look at environmental and behavior patterns.

“We hypothesize that participation in such problem-solving, creative, team-building activities leads to positive health behaviors and health outcome,” according to the researchers.

The three-year research project is headed by Carol Costello, professor in retail, hospitality and tourism management. For the past 12 years, she has been the on-site food service coordinator for the DI Global Finals. She observed how few of the children were overweight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported about 31 percent of children are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

“When you start looking at the children in DI, it’s pretty amazing,” Costello said. “We want to know: Are they eating differently than other children? Are they more active? This project will give us a national sample.”

Costello is joined by colleagues from the UT Obesity Research Center: Naima Moustaid-Moussa, professor of animal science; Betty Greer, professor of family and consumer sciences; David Bassett, professor of exercise, sport and leisure studies, and Eugene Fitzhugh, assistant professor of exercise, sport and leisure studies. UT’s role in planning the DI competition on campus and in Knoxville is headed by Robert Gibbs, director of UT conferences.

“Belonging to DI’s creative problem-solving teams, the students are engaged, challenged and physically and mentally active after school and on weekends, and we truly believe there is a link between their level of physical fitness and the rigor of their DI activities,” said Rusty McCarty, vice president of creative programming for Destination ImagiNation.

Beginning this May, researchers will collect heights and weights of DI participants. The children will be asked questions about what kind of food they eat and how physically active they are. Parents also will answer similar questions in a survey.

Students in grades K-12 participate in DI, but only children who have completed the fifth grade or higher can be involved in the research project. Their parents also must sign a consent form.

Ultimately, the research team will develop a “challenge” for the DI participants about nutrition and physical activity. Challenges are the problems DI groups try to solve. And later, the researchers want to get children in Tennessee not involved in DI to participate in the challenge through Extension agents.


Elizabeth Davis, UT media relations, (865) 974-5179,

Andy Bowen, Destination ImagiNation, (877) 251-0400,