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KNOXVILLE — Students attending Destination ImagiNation hosted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this week have a chance to help scientists studying one of the most important health challenges facing youth today: obesity.

A team of UT researchers was awarded a three-year grant worth more than $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study childhood obesity. The National Dairy Council also is donating $6,000 per year to aid in the data collection.

Destination ImagiNation (DI), based in New Jersey, is the world’s largest creative problem-solving program for youth. The competition is held May 21-24. About 8,500 students participated last year.

Involving DI participants was the idea of Carol Costello, a professor in retail, hospitality and tourism management who has a specialty in food service management. For the past 12 years, she has been the on-site food service coordinator for the DI Global Finals. Costello observed how few of the children at DI were overweight and decided to study why.

The researchers’ first job is to collect data. DI participants will fill out surveys about their eating and physical activity habits. Then their heights and weights will be collected to determine body mass index, which is used to determine whether someone is obese.

The parents or guardians of the participating DI students will be contacted later to complete an online survey about diet and physical activity. All of the data will be analyzed, and ultimately the researchers will create a skit-making challenge about nutrition and physical activity for DI participants and other children.

Costello is joined on the research project 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.

While obesity among adults has been classified as a public health epidemic in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported about 31 percent of children are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

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.

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. Those who participate will receive a special pin. Pin collecting and trading are popular activities in DI.


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