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With project, students learn, shine on their own
Independence pupils compete at Odyssey of Mind

By HIRAN RATNAYAKE * The News Journal * March 7, 2010
They didn't get any help from their parents or teachers -- and they didn't want any.

The seven members of the seventh-grade team at the Independence School north of Newark in Pike Creek had to show Saturday what they could do when left -- literally -- to their own devices.

They had spent four months preparing for the nature competition in the 30th annual Odyssey of the Mind, a competitive program held at the University of Delaware that encourages and rewards creative thinking.

Using everyday resources, the Independence students were charged with designing, building and driving a tween-powered vehicle that could go on a camping trip and had a camper attached. The students also had to show, in a skit, how they would overcome a series of obstacles during their journey through an imaginary forest.

"We put in a lot of hard work, all by ourselves," said 13-year-old Katherine Robinson, the team's de facto leader.

An estimated 1,500 students in all grades had been working since the fall to prepare their skit and show off their ability to invent, problem-solve and work together in various categories. Each of the 230 teams was made up of five to seven students.

Some teams were required to make aircraft that would complete a variety of flight plans. Others had to create a courtroom-style performance on whether a food item should be guilty or innocent of being unhealthy.

"They learn how to create. They learn about mechanical design. They learn how to build something, how to saw something," said Cliff Robinson, Katherine's father. "It teaches them to do things they never thought they could do."

During the Independence team's eight-minute skit, two of its members dressed up as talking animals, negotiated the woods in their vehicle -- a shopping cart-and-cement board hybrid. Held together with duct tape, staples and cable ties, the vehicle accelerated whenever Katherine Robinson pushed the front two wheels with her hands.

As she and a companion traveled through an imaginary forest, they encountered debris that they were able to clean up using a pine-tree branch that also was part of the vehicle. They also had a special "dust collector" at the bottom that could gather waste to help protect the environment. All the while, a mad scientist -- 12-year-old T.J. LaStrange -- was watching and hatching a plan to capture and place them in a zoo.

At the end of the skit, all of the kids were pleased with their performance. About 40 parents and relatives gushed, their video cameras trained on the team members.

"We were having times where we'd have things that we had to change," LaStrange said about the months of preparation. "But we were able to figure things out and recover."

Added 13-year-old Katherine Tchinnis: "I learned that staple guns and duct tape are very helpful."

Their performance was good enough to win third place. H.B. du Pont Middle School took first. The winners in all the divisions get a bid to the World Finals competition at Michigan State University in East Lansing on May 26-29.

Even though the Independence team won't be in Michigan, LaStrange's father said the fruits of their endeavor will last a lifetime.

"It's going to prepare them for the real world because they're going to learn how to work as a team and how to come up with their own ideas," Tom LaStrange said.



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