Odyssey Of The Mind
Q: What international competition tests the mental mettle of Dare County students with other students from such far-flung countries as Singapore, Switzerland, and Togo?
A: Odyssey of the Mind, of course!
At this time every year, a group of teams from Dare County schools are months into preparing for tough competitions that require hours of practice, preparation, teamwork, skill building, and dedication.
Instead of doing backflips, scoring goals, or making that game point, they are exercising their minds as part of a program where children are encouraged to think outside the box and flex their creative muscles.
As participants in Odyssey of the Mind (OM), a program more than 25 years strong that spans the globe, young people learn that not only are there many “right” answers, but also there are many paths to get there. And the best way to get there is to work as a group.
Students at all levels – from elementary to high school – put in dozens of hours to prepare for eight minutes of competition where they will have to present their solution to a problem that covers one of five categories: mechanical/vehicle, classics, performance, structure, and technical performance. Based on their scores, OM teams, of up to seven students each, compete on regional, state, and eventually, international levels. And while the international competitions are the end goal, it is in the process that they are experiencing a whole lot of fun and forming lasting friendships.
Odyssey of the Mind has been encouraging children to tap into their innate creativity and ability to problem-solve ever since a New Jersey professor founded the program in 1978. Its effects, many coaches say, last a lifetime.
The program first entered Dare County Schools in the early 1980s, says Barbara Hardy, AIG teacher and longtime OM coordinator at Kitty Hawk Elementary School.
Over the years, participation in Odyssey of the Mind has waxed and waned, but the bulk of the teams are at the elementary level, and a few teams have stayed together all the way through high school. “Children have to come up with all of the solutions, from how to make the costumes, to the technical aspects. The solutions to the problem are as individual as the teams,” Hardy says.
The program, she adds, attracts kids who lean toward divergent and creative thinking. “There’s a lot of brainstorming and trial and error involved. Persistence is a big piece of it. Odyssey of the Mind really teaches these kids to value each other’s ideas and build on them. It’s all about the journey. If they happen to win, that’s a nice thing. But what happens along the way is what really impacts them.”
Longtime coach Susan McFarlane has four children who have all participated in the program between four and six years and she’s coached all of their teams at some point during their OM career. She said what she liked best about coaching was “working with the kids right where they are in their learning process.”
Also media coordinator of First Flight High School, McFarlane said the children who gravitate to OM are often creative thinkers and student leaders, but it draws all kinds – from the theatrical extrovert to the introverted and shy bookworm.
“You have the ones who can think out of the box and the self-managers. And then you also have the really quiet ones who seem to really flourish in the program. It takes a good balance of each because they have to come up with different ways of doing things. Here, one size doesn’t fit all.”
Amy Fish, a parent who also coached her children’s Odyssey of the Mind teams, said it was great to see how the children grew and communicated with one another during the process. And the program provides an outlet for children who may not otherwise have one.
“None of my kids were into sports,” she says. “They were much more into the intellectual side of things and there is not a lot out there that stretches that side of them. This gives that creative and intellectual child that space and brings them together to really excel.”
And Dare County has put out some impressive teams that have climbed all the way to the World Championships some years. It has also hosted the regional competition for several years now with the First Flight school campus being the perfect venue.
Every year, teams are presented with five competitive, long-term problems. Teams choose the problem they want to solve and spend several months working together to present their solution to other teams and judges in the same grade level during competitions.
Problems are complex, involving one or more objectives, as well as a set of limitations, requirements, and specific scoring categories.
In the mechanical/vehicle category, teams design, build and/or operate vehicles using different power sources. They may drive the vehicles, or have them perform tasks like overcoming obstacles.
This year’s challenge has teams building, riding and driving on a no-cycle, recycling vehicle. “It will pick up discarded items, adapt them in some way, and then deliver them to places to be reused,” according to the instructions. The vehicle will have to travel without pedals and the driver must have an assistant worker on the vehicle who will help process the trash items. In addition, they have to make an unplanned stop on the way to perform a random act of kindness.
In the performance category this year, teams will have to create and present a humorous performance that depicts problem solving from the perspective of three different animals who will have to help a stranger, help each other, and solve a problem that threatens the survival of all animals. Oh, and the animals have to sing and dance and show curiosity, sympathy, frustration and joy.
The structure category involves building structures from balsa wood and glue. Last year’s challenge was called Lose Your Marbles and required the team to design, build, and test a structure that would balance and support as much weight as possible. The structure also had to hold five marbles that had to be released during weight placement using a team-created device that removed a piece of the structure.
In this year’s problem, called “Attack the Stack,” students have to design, build, and test a structure that will balance and support as much weight as possible – twice.
Other years have included challenges like “The Not-So-Haunted House” in which the team was required to create and present an original performance that includes a “pop-up-style” house. The intent of the special effect was to scare others, but they had to produce a different result instead and include at least one character who experienced the special effects and a narrator who relayed the experiences to the audience.
Problems are scored in three areas including the long-term solution itself, the style component of the long-term solution and spontaneous problems that are not given to teams until the day of the competition. Only five of the seven members of the team are permitted to go before the judges and participate in solving the spontaneous problem. (see below)
McFarlane says a part of every meeting is reserved to practice spontaneous skills.
“The kids that tend to do the best [at the spontaneous competition] are the ones who are both smart and funny, and quick on their feet. It takes teamwork, as well as the ability of the kids to build off one another and be funny at the same time, tying responses to the topic using various levels of critical thinking,” she says.
While they won’t know their questions until they arrive in the competition room, practice problems this year include building a structure of toothpicks and clay that sits on a table behind a boundary line. The structure has to stick out as far as possible beyond the line without touching the table surface. All spontaneous responses are timed.
In contrast to the long-term problem which students spend months working on, spontaneous problems are just that: problems that have to be answered on the spot in front of a team of judges at the competition. Some spontaneous problems build verbal skills; some build mechanical skills and some build both… but all improve creative problem-solving talents. The five spontaneous team members who are selected from the larger team must participate in some way. Here are some sample spontaneous problems:
Your problem is: to pull items out of a bag and start a story that uses the item in an unusual way. Pass the bag to your team member who must also pull out an item and continue the story you started with another item. The problem continues until time is up or bag is empty.
Your problem is: to select a word from the dictionary that you think has an unknown definition to all of those in your team. Write the correct definition on one card while everyone else in the team writes a fictitious (but convincing) definition. All definitions are read aloud by the coach and voted on.
Your problem is: to entirely wrap as many items as possible with 7 sheets of note paper. Various items are given to wrap with different points assigned to each item. Leftover paper earns the team extra points. Creative responses include putting high point items inside other items to combine scores.
“I can’t think of anything that we offer in the schools that takes such a long term commitment,” says Hardy. “It’s at least once a week from the fall through the spring.”
Many times, it’s more than once a week and those practices can easily eat up a weekend day. “It can be intense,” McFarlane says. “They really learn to value problem solving and exercise creative thinking and it allows for an instant group of student colleagues. And it gives them an excuse to hang out. It’s such a great thing for them and the coaches. To see the kids’ progress, you really see that you are doing something important.”
Teams are formed in late September and early October at the various schools and shortly afterward, a problem is chosen by the team, and the real work begins. While teams can choose how often and how long they’d like to meet, they typically meet twice a week for several hours each practice.
The season continues until the regional competition in early March. If teams advance, their season is extended. State competitions are held in April and the World Competition is held every Memorial Day weekend.
Fish says it is very rewarding to be a coach. “To see all the kids, who are individually very bright, create and come together to solve pretty complex problems, is really great to see. It’s a long commitment,” she adds. “There’s a lot of practice and planning, but it is a fun time.”
McFarlane says that, as a coach, you definitely gauge when to allow them some space to waste an afternoon having fun and when it’s time to get to work. But what’s really great, she says, “is to see the kids start to take over and just watch what it grows into.”
Where in the World?
Every year since 2006 (there are no records available before then), Dare County has sent teams to the World Finals for Odyssey of the Mind. Using the word ‘world’ is not an understatement. Our elementary, middle, and high school students have competed against teams from China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Poland, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the U.S. Last year, the team from Nags Head Elementary (top
photo) placed in the top 10, and in 2011, First Flight Middle ranked 6th; both were competing against 41 international teams.