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Jul 06, 2009

At the world finals of Odyssey of the Mind, nine months of problem solving is distilled into eight minute-long creative outbursts.

By Tara Kyle

A mechanized junkyard raccoon dances the robot. The myth of Heracles’s 12 labors gets a new spin. And a NASA-sponsored miniature cable car zips to four points across a makeshift stage.

These are some of the projects undertaken by elementary, middle and high school and college students participating in Odyssey of the Mind.

As student activities go, Odyssey doesn’t have quite the singular focus of debate, athletics or the National Geography Bee, nor does it match the fanfare. But for the 5,500 competitors who arrived this May for the world finals at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Odyssey is serious business.

Beginning around September, seven-member teams from schools as close as Tennessee and as far as Hong Kong begin working on a problem in one of five categories: vehicle, technical, classics, structure and performance.

Their solution must be articulated in the form of an eight minute-long skit or performance.

For teen Clayton Richenberg of York Central School in Retsof, N.Y., competing in the “structure” category required his team to build a form out of balsa wood and glue, and then test how much weight it would support under increasing stress. His team incorporated their device into a skit about honeybees trying to save their hive from colony collapse disorder.

“[Odyssey of the Mind] teaches kids—and us in particular—great lessons about how to work together as a team and how to think for yourself and be creative,” he says.

Odyssey’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education, cooperation and innovation began in 1978, when 28 schools in New Jersey participated in the first competition.

“We’re trying to teach them to think outside of the box—that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, and that creative thinking can help you in all aspects of life,” says Jennifer Veale, spokesperson for Odyssey.

Self-sufficiency is also a crucial lesson. Although an adult coach supports each team as they progress through regional, state and world competitions, he or she is not allowed to help with the problem solving. They can only encourage students not to give up and assist in brainstorming by asking questions, like “Do you think there’s another way?” and “What other possibilities are there?”

At competitions, where points are earned for artistry, creativity and risk-taking, judges penalize teams for any hints of adult involvement. After each performance, judges ferret out adult interference by asking kids about how set pieces were built and how they came up with the idea.

“A lot of the kids are sometimes more honest than their parents,” says Veale.

From the coach’s perspective, the nine months of work leading up to the world competition is worth it because of the mix of skills Odyssey imparts.

“This is the most variety you’re going to get with any one program. It’s not just about football or just about drama or just about one thing. It’s the drama, the construction, talking in front of people and learning to do all of that,” says Scott Stewart, who coaches the Turner Middle School team from Berthoud, Colo. “The most fun is just watching these kids blossom.”

The development of the soft skills of leadership and teamwork is also a critical piece of students’ day-to-day struggle to keep frustrations in check while structures fall apart and skits search for their voice.

“Learning to work together, never getting angry when things don’t go well—that’s very important,” says coach Carla May of Port St. Joe, Fla. “I think it’s something they’re going to take with them for the rest of their lives.”

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