It was easy to get lost in a world of imagination at Smoky Hill High School for a few hours on Oct. 7.
The school's hallways transformed into untapped gold mines and its banks of lockers became the backdrop for giant tropical trees and jet planes awaiting takeoff. Smoky Hill's gyms hosted massive peacocks and imposing creatures from alien planets; its cafeteria hosted Imperial Walkers from the "Star Wars" universe and fanciful carousels from the turn of the century. Elementary school students took up a roost near the front entrance to play chess on an oversized board, while middle schoolers tinkered with a fully functioning catapult and high schoolers guided robots across the hardwood floor of the gym nearby.
For all the diversity on display, the outpouring of creativity at the third annual Cardboard Challenge had a common thread. More than 800 students from across the Cherry Creek School District reported to Smoky Hill last week to show off more than 450 projects made entirely of cardboard and other recycled materials. Participants competed for recognition and prizes, but more importantly, they came to share their ingenuity and creative visions. The event funded and organized by the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation was all about originality and resourcefulness.
"I built a car last year, and I wanted to do something different," said Carson Conklin, a 5th-grader from Peakview Elementary. This year, Conklin built a gold mine out of cardboard and other materials, including spray-painted rocks, plastic bats and spiders and a hand-built mine cart. "I like gold mining," Conklin said before offering a simple explanation for his continued participation in the event. "It's just fun."
The Cardboard Challenge started in Cherry Creek three years ago, inspired by 2012 documentary film "Caine's Arcade" directed by Nirvan Mullick. The film centers on a 9-year-old boy from Los Angeles who created an arcade made entirely out of cardboard. The project and the film caught the attention of an international audience of supporters; school districts across the country used the basic concept as a way to encourage creativity and better illustrate STEM-based curriculum for students. The project also launched the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering creativity and entrepreneurship for children across the globe. The event aligns with the core goal of the Foundation, which focuses primarily on impacting all CCSD students, investing in innovation and building long-term relationships in the community.
In Cherry Creek, the simple concept behind the Cardboard Challenge has inspired students in a way that goes beyond the confines of the typical school day. With a simple set of rules as their guide, students find a kind of creative freedom encourages personal expression and individuality.
"You get to see originality that's not always in the classroom," said former CCSD Superintendent Mary Chesley, who served as one of the event's judges for the second year in a row. Chesley spoke specifically of a student who made a 1920s-era flapper's dress out of cardboard. "She talked about the era it's from, why she did it … You really get to talk to the kids here."
The dynamic encourages a sense of community and involvement that goes beyond the students. The inspiring effect of the event was impossible to miss.
"I'm looking for the most creative project. It doesn't have to necessarily be the biggest or the grandest. It just has to be the most creative," said Adam Pitts, a senior account director at Level 3 Communications, an event sponsor. Pitts served as judge for the 3rd through 5th grade category. "We're a company of engineers, and this project that has students using their own resources is a good partnership for us."
What's more, the students knew they were part of a larger movement, one that has inspired participants across the world. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull spoke to the larger implications of the event before Foundation members announced winning entries from kindergarten through 2nd grade, 3rd through 5th grade, middle school and high school categories.
"You are participating today in something that is happening all over the world," Bull announced to the gym packed to capacity with students, parents and community members. "We're going to do this again next year."