Three times a week during the winter and spring, Darla Agard's Eagan garage is filled with 10 middle school boys, eating popcorn and listening to music.

They're not just hanging out, though — they might be painting scenery, working with electromagnets to create a hovercraft, or building a new-and-improved bubble machine.

It's all part of Destination Imagination (DI), an international program that encourages students to work together to solve challenges — from structural and technical problems to fine arts and service learning — in a creative way.

The boys make up two DI teams from Dakota Hills Middle School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district. Both teams, coached by Agard, will soon head to Global Finals in Knoxville, Tenn., from May 21 through 24.

Each team — "Just Arrived Classy Men" is made up of eighth-graders and "Duct Tape Phobia" is composed of sixth-graders — has put in more than 100 hours over eight months perfecting their project, Agard said.

Agard, who has coached for five years, is a firm believer in the program. "I think it gives them a chance to think in ways that they don't get to in school," she said. "There's no winning or losing, it's just solving a problem."

In elementary school, DI was a creative outlet, she said, but in middle school, "It's a safe zone for them to be who they are. No one's going to tell them they had a dumb idea [here]."

Eric Schmidt, the gifted and talented coordinator at Dakota Hills, said the district has a long history of excelling with DI. Seven other Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan teams will also compete at Global Finals.

"The key to a successful DI team is having kids that are willing to work together and having dedicated parent coaches," he said. The program "lets their imaginations flow while fostering collaborative creativity and problem solving."

Raining diamonds?

The "Classy Men" are competing in a scientific challenge called "Going to Extremes" that requires them to research an extreme environment and create a story about characters trying to adapt to it. The team set their skit on Neptune, where it rains diamond dust and the surface is covered with an ­ammonia ocean, said Drew Agard, an eighth-grader who is the only member of both teams.

When there's a diamond shortage on Earth, the men go to Neptune to collect diamonds, he said.

"I really like to have a challenge," Drew said. "I think [DI] is a good place to build stuff without boundaries."

The team has created a bubble machine to simulate the diamonds, and it performs most of the third act on homemade stilts to avoid the ammonia ocean, he said.

"We've had a series of difficulties with the stilts," he said. They finally added rubber to the bottom to prevent slipping, and chose different screws to keep them together.

He said the secret to the team's success is good communication, which they've developed over five years together. While some original members have left, Drew Agard, Michael Carlin, Jacob Zuzek and Cole Anderson have learned to work together and divide up projects based on individual strengths.

"You need to know each other's limits, when not to push each other over the edge," Drew said.

The tension builds

The sixth-grade team, called "Duct Tape Phobia," is competing in a structural challenge called "The Tension Builds." They must build a structure that will be tested against two forces at the same time, create a prop that will be assembled on stage and write a skit involving tension that is eventually resolved.

With structural challenges, most of the points are given based on how much weight is held by a balsa-wood structure the team builds.

The team's skit is about a wealthy surfer who wants to build a hotel combining two wonders of the world — the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Pyramids of Giza. The team — Jack Burright, Drew Agard, Brian Dilla, Daniel Tschida, Kent Purcell, Kai Purcell and Lucas Williams — created a television with ads that actually scroll across the screen and melted crayons on an old ironing board to make his surfboard.

"We tried a ton of stuff and it didn't work. We finally came up with this and it worked," Dilla said of the skit's premise.

Burright has been drawn to structure problems since his brother competed in DI, he said. "I loved to watch my brother pile on the weights," he said. "It was just fascinating to see how 600 pounds could be held by just paper and glue."

Kari Anderson, Cole's mother, said Global Finals are "crazy and fun and stressful and hot at the same time."

Kai Purcell said he's not nervous about competing, though he hopes the team has gotten even better since the state tournament. "I just like to have fun," he said. "It's all about the experience, I guess, and not as much about the score."