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A journey of learning for students

By MIKE PIEKARSKI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Thursday, March 8, 2007

Teams to test problem- solving skills at Odyssey of the Mind regionals

ROTTERDAM -- It's not "Jeopardy!" or a talent show, but the participants must be intelligent and creative and a whole lot more.

It is Odyssey of the Mind, and more than 400 youngsters from the Capital Region will be participating Saturday in the Region 7 event at the Mohonasen High School-Draper Middle School campus on Curry Road.

The annual event, which will begin at 8:30 a.m. and continue throughout the day, challenges teams of students to devise solutions to problems posed by Odyssey officials. In addition to being graded on their solutions, the youngsters also are rated on such factors as risk-taking and how well they work together.

"The kids make their own props, they design sets, they design everything related to the problem," said Kathryn Martin, a longtime event volunteer and a 2006 judge. "They make their own costumes or trees or boats -- whatever the problem calls for. They're limited only by their imagination."

According to tournament director Cathy Newell, regional winners are eligible for state tournaments and then the national finals, called the worlds, to be held this year at Michigan State University. Participants range in age from kindergartners up to high school seniors, Newell said.

The 12 local school districts that make up Region 7 are Academy of the Holy Names, Bethlehem, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Duanesburg, Middleburgh, Mohonasen, Schenectady, Schoharie, Scotia-Glenville, Sharon Springs and Voorheesville.

Teams, which can include up to seven students, are asked to solve one of five problems. One challenge this year is designing a balsa wood structure that weighs no more than 15 paper clips but is strong enough to bear more than 1,000 pounds.

In addition, all the parts must fit into a small box and then be assembled during the competition. Each team is also presented with a problem it has not had the opportunity to prepare for, to be judged on its spontaneity.

Teams are given their project months before the competition and increase the frequency of their meetings to work on it as the event approaches.

"There is teamwork involved; they support each other," said Martin, a program manager at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Colonie. "There is a whole lot of learning that goes on."

Depending on its solution method, each team brings something different to the problem-solving session.

If a problem is to create a storybook and make the action "come alive" in a performance, the students must create a skit and may sing, play instruments or perform gymnastics. There is not one "right" answer.

"The kids continue to amaze me with their solutions," said state director Jackie Otte. "Their creativity is just amazing."

Those finishing first and second in each category may advance to the state tournament, to be held March 31 at Binghamton University.

Otte expects approximately 230 teams at the state event. Counting parents, coaches and spectators, "we normally have between four and five thousand at our closing ceremonies," she said.

Last year, a team from Charlton Heights Elementary in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district placed first in Region 7's Division I (kindergarten through fifth grade), won a creativity award at the states and placed second in the worlds.

Another team, from Middleburgh, placed first in Division II (sixth through eighth grade), second at the state meet and eighth in the national competition.

"The camaraderie that develops within teams and among teams that compete is wonderful to see," said Otte, a Rotterdam resident. "Unlike other sports where teams compete against each other, here they're competing against a problem. They really all are winners."

For more information, visit http://www.odysseyofthemind.com or http://arts.capregboces.org/odyssey.htm.

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