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Students shine in learning 'odyssey'


By Sarah Gantz
AURELIUS - The celery stalk was being taken to court by a wedge of chocolate cake and charged with being unhealthy, of all things.
Skaneateles sixth-grader Mick Elliott, left, and fifth-grader Sophie Kush act out their "Library Time Travel" skit for the Discovered Treasures problem at the region 11 Odyssey of the Mind competition at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES campus in Aurelius Saturday morning.
The evidence: celery grows in the ground, which everyone knows is full of worms. And it has no sugar, which is a sure sign it tastes nasty.

The food court skit performed by a group of Southern Cayuga Middle School students, in which the table turns and the accusatory chocolate confection is convicted, was one of many performed by local students as part of the Odyssey of the Mind regional competition. The top winners at the annual competition of creativity, quick-thinking and wit qualified to move on to the state championship in Binghamton March 27.

"It brings out something in the students that you might not see in the other school activities they do," said Tony Abbatiello, the regional director. Teams of no more than seven students work together for months to put together a skit that fits one of five categories: Return to the Gift of Flight, Discovered Treasures, Column Structure, Nature Trail'R and Food Court. Students cannot receive help from their adult coaches and must create their costumes, scenery and props on a budget.

"It brings out their own creativity rather than someone telling them what to do," Abbatiello said.

More than 60 teams of elementary, middle and high school students from the nine component school districts of Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES participated in the Region 11 competition held at BOCES's Aurelius campus. Awards were given to the top three groups each of three divisions for every category. All first place winners will continue on to the state event in Binghamton, where they will compete for slots at the world championship in Michigan.

With video cameras on their shoulders and younger children hanging on their legs, hundreds of parents crammed into the gymnasium for an award ceremony after all the skits had been performed and judged. The announcement of each third, second and first place winning team was met by a roar of applause. Students scrambled onto a makeshift stage to receive their awards, shake the hand of state Sen. Michael Nozzolio and flail their arms in the air triumphantly.

But the event was not really about trophies and ribbons.

"It's just a lot of fun," said Mick Elliott, a sixth-grader at Skaneateles Middle School, who had played in her group's act a time machine operator with an eclectic sense of style. Her sequined bolero took on a disco ball feel, catching and reflecting light at different angles as she described how she and her teammates put together their skit about venturing back in time from a library.

"It's fun to not just put on a play, but to get to make your own," said Amelia Taylor, a Southern Cayuga middle schooler who had freed herself from her cardboard cake costume and was attempting to remove the sweets glued to the group's scenery.

The competition is intended to be completely student-driven. Not only are students supposed to think of an idea, assemble scenery and develop a script on their own, judges give penalties to any group that receives too much adult assistance.

And while students enjoy preparing for and performing at Odyssey of the Mind because they get to spend time with friends, make up their own rules and let their imaginations run wild, parents like the idea of their children doing something that challenges them.

"I just think little people should be kept busy," said Liz Bruce, whose fifth grade son, Stuart, participated in his fourth Odyssey Saturday. "They should be using their little brains."

Though skits are only eight minutes long, students begin preparing as early as October. By the time the competition comes around, many groups are spending hours a day perfecting their act. The event also includes spontaneous problems, which students can not prepare for in advance and have only minutes to improvise in front of judges.

But the whole event is, in celery stalk Stuart Bruce's opinion, "awesome."

"It's a good exercise for the brain," Stuart said. Spoken like a true healthy snack.



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