Odyssey of the Mind teams prepare
By Rita Giordano
Nearly five months ago, seven students from Clara Barton Elementary School in Cherry Hill set out on a problem-solving quest.
Their task? Construct a mechanical creature that behaves like a mammal or bird, work it into a play, and teach it a thing or two. No small feat for a team whose members have an average age of 10.
Now, many hours of brainstorming and assorted building materials later, the Cherry Hill Seven are almost ready to take their creature on the road to see how he stacks up against the efforts of other South Jersey students.
What kind of creature? Don't even ask.
"It's a secret," said Michael Lazarow, a third grader.
Thousands of secrets will soon be revealed as students nationwide take part in regional tournaments of Odyssey of the Mind, a problem-solving contest that started locally 31 years ago and has gone international.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania tournament will be Saturday. South Jersey's will be March 21. Winners will advance to their state championships. In May, the best of the best nationally and abroad will head to the World Finals in Iowa.
Each year in Odyssey of the Mind, teams of up to seven students spend months devising creative solutions to one of several highly detailed "problems." Goals and scoring guidelines for the creature problem alone run five single-spaced pages.
This year, the challenges range from building a vehicle to creating a skit on Greek mythology. At the competitions, the teams - which are organized by age, ranging through college age - have eight minutes to strut their stuff.
They can't just throw money at their problem. For example, Clara Barton's creature builders can spend no more than $145 under contest rules.
Over 4,000 U.S. schools are currently involved in Odyssey, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Veale. International members hail from more than a dozen countries.
And to think it started here.
From 1968 to 1991, Sam Micklus taught technology and industrial design at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. He quickly realized that his students' creativity needed a jump start.
"Those were the days of flower power and hippies," said Micklus, 74. "I said, 'You guys are a bunch of phonies. You want to take over buildings, but when I give you a problem, you act like an elderly grandmother.' "
So Micklus devised hands-on problems to challenge them. The idea took off. In 1978, he thought it would be fun to give children a crack at problem-solving; a competition was held at Glassboro with 28 schools.
"It was going to be a one-time thing, but it just struck a nerve," he said.
Micklus still creates many of the children's Odyssey problems. His son Sam, who also designs challenges, runs the Sewell company that operates Odyssey. Schools pay the for-profit company a $135 annual fee to participate.
The elder Micklus loves going to the annual World Finals, where he is well-known.
"It's like having 7,000 grandkids," he said.
Many kids never get Odyssey out of their system. Lots of former participants coach and coordinate. Take Deb Barnes, who became regional director for Southeastern Pennsylvania, which has 72 schools and 163 teams competing.
Barnes, an assistant principal in Allentown, has been involved in Odyssey since 1986, when she was a sixth grader in the Pennsbury School District. She's worn several Odyssey hats since then, but she'll never forget making it to the World Finals in 1988. A championship tradition is exchanging state and country pins; she still has hers.
Odyssey, Barnes said, "provides kids with an opportunity to think creatively, to work as a team and to find a solution to a problem without adult involvement."
Nancy Caterina of Pennsauken, case manager for the state Appellate Division, is tournament director of the Lighthouse Region in the southern half of New Jersey. This year, 85 teams from 43 schools are competing.
She became involved in Odyssey about 15 years ago when her nephew in middle school participated. She likes Odyssey's team structure, which allows each child to contribute his or her talents to multifaceted problems.
"It's a program for everybody," she said.
Youngsters say they like it for those reasons and more.
This is Germantown High School's first year in Odyssey. Christopher Bailey, a sophomore, is on a team designing a weight-supporting balsa-wood structure. Odyssey is a good way to learn, he says.
"It's more hands-on," said Christopher, 15. "In other classes, you're listening to a teacher. In this, you're up and moving around."
Jeffrey Eker, 14, a freshman at Haddonfield Memorial High School, is helping to build a vehicle that has to change its appearance as it moves to each of four locations. He started in Odyssey in the seventh grade.
"I've been in love with it ever since," he wrote in an e-mail. "This is an activity that is not only rewarding academically, but a whole ton of fun."
Samantha Horry, 11, a fifth grader in Montgomery County's Colonial School District and a self-described "drama queen," enjoys getting to act and express her creative side. She's working on the Greek-mythology problem.
In Odyssey, kids also build friendships, which was clear from Cherry Hill's tight-knit creature builders during a break last week over pink lemonade and soft pretzels.
One of the cool things about Odyssey, members said, is that you learn new things about yourself.
"I never knew I could build stuff," said fourth grader Emma Abbaszadeh, a 10-year-old whose mother and father both coach Odyssey.
Nicholas Alberto, 10, said he liked the idea of acting but didn't know if he would actually be good at it. He plays the teacher of the creature, which, if it could speak, would have an Australian accent. Nicholas has his Aussie down cold.
But enough clues. Until March 21 and the tournament, the creature is their secret.
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