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'Everything is discovery'

Dan Berrett
Pocono Record Writer
March 07, 2007

Pocono Mountain students challenged by unusual Odyssey of the Mind contest

Fatigue and worry were creeping into Coolbaugh Elementary Center's cafeteria late last Tuesday afternoon.

It was the second-to-last practice before Coolbaugh's students were headed down to Abington to compete that weekend in a contest called Odyssey of the Mind. The events in which they would be competing were far from typical.

One team had written an eight-minute play -- complete with a song and dance number about surfing -- about a trickster duping people on a boardwalk. They had rehearsed and refined their sketch to the point that they were a well-oiled machine.

But for the other team, things were not going well.

That team's task was to design, build and run a vehicle that would make a trip to predetermined spots on a floor, where objects would be placed in it. And the students had to perform a skit while their vehicle made as many rounds of this circuit as it could.

The students' skit featured characters out of a fractured fairy tale: a hard-boiled Humpty Dumpty and a big, bad wolf whose asthma kept him from blowing down houses. Their buggy was supposed to travel from point to point during the performance.

But if the wheels couldn't spin properly, the whole buggy wouldn't move and the skit wouldn't happen.

Bobby Sciarrone crouched on the shiny linoleum floor, studying the makeshift horse and carriage that he and his fellow students had spent months fashioning. The wheels were spinning in place, not catching on the ground as they were supposed to.

"No!" another boy yelled as he watched from a few feet away. Then he flopped onto his back.

Don Birchell, a technology teacher who is also one of the team's two advisers, walked over to Sciarrone. "What do you think the problem is?" he asked the fourth-grader.

Sciarrone guessed it could be dust on the floor that was getting in the way. Another boy came over with a different idea. Maybe the axles for the two sets of wheels were separating. After all, the last time they had tried to run the vehicle, it hadn't been festooned with a mock pumpkin, green felt around its base, and two toy horses jutting from its front, as it was now. The extra weight could have knocked the mechanism off kilter.

"So, it could be a lot of different things," Burchell said, trying not to lead them to the answer.

The two boys talked it over, and decided what to do. One dashed off to find some duct tape to fix the axles.

Burchell walked away. "That's a perfect example of how this works," he said.

Odyssey of the Mind is an international event that tests students' problem-solving, teamwork and creative skills. Students spend the year in teams of up to seven working through a deceptively simple problem. Some tasks call upon technical ability, while others are artistic, or both.

And they must do so without the teachers ever giving them ideas; their own creativity is supposed to be their guide. Trial and error, and natural cause and effect, put these ideas to the test.

Coolbaugh's team felt this phenomenon first-hand. The seven boys had tried and failed -- over and over again -- to build their vehicle. They experimented with constructing everything from railroad tracks to ski lifts. Nothing worked.

"The most difficult part is being hands-off," Burchell said. "With this, everything is discovery. You just have to let them explore."

The solution the students landed on was one that Burchell and fellow adviser Bryan Siegfried never imagined: the engine was powered by an electric drill, the rotating bit spun the axel.

About Odyssey andeffects in education
Odyssey of the Mind began in 1978 as the brainchild of Samuel Micklus, a college professor of technology in New Jersey, who wanted his students to develop their creative problem-solving skills. He would pose problems to his students, often rewarding the creative or risky solution over the more pedestrian one.

Over time, a friendly international competition was born. Today, it enjoys sponsorship by NASA, and it draws thousands of teams from the United States and about 25 other countries.

Pocono Mountain School District is new to the fold. This year, the district fielded teams from two schools, Coolbaugh and Pocono elementary centers, with the idea that more teams would be started down the line.

The district's involvement comes at a time when creativity is freshly emerging in debates about the future of American education. The most notable example is a blue-ribbon panel of educators, government officials, policy wonks and business executives who formed a group called the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

That group looked at the increasingly globalized economy, and noted that outsourcing and mechanization had eroded the base of what it called "routine" American jobs, particularly in manufacturing.

The way for America to stay competitive, they said in their report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," was to tap what they called "a deep vein of creativity." They described it as the ability to envision that which has never been available before; we will have to be innovators if we want to remain leaders in the world.

Tomorrow's workers -- and today's students -- need to be adaptable in a new kind of world, the authors wrote. "It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education -- a very different kind of education than most of us have had -- are going to be the only security there is."

The commission's ideas have attracted some criticism. "Most of the report's prescriptions are not only radical but dubious," wrote education historian Diane Ravitch in a recent issue of Education Week.

Promoting creativity and innovation and self-discipline is a fine thing. But, Ravitch noted, no standardized test exists that can adequately measure them.

At Odyssey of the Mind, the closest thing to that test comes in the form of the competition.

The contest loomed over the head of Steven Clerico, 10, the ring-leader of the vehicle team. Clerico said that the task would keep popping into his head during classes. "This is something you look forward to every school day," he said.

Last Tuesday, as the students cleaned up their sets and the duct-taped buggy, Clerico walked up to Siegfried wearing a more worried expression than usual.

The team had only one more rehearsal later that week before the regional competition in Abington. That final practice would run until 5 p.m., but Clerico didn't think it would be enough time.

"Can we stay until 6 instead?" he asked.

As it turned out, the team would need it.

On Saturday, the players, advisers and parents trekked to Abington. The atmosphere was electric; Siegfried likened it to an intense rivalry between football teams, except the subject was academics.

The same gaffe befell Coolbaugh's buggy. The gasp in the auditorium was audible, Siegfried said.

But Sciarrone, who is one of the team's youngest members, stuck with it. He righted the problem, and the vehicle made the maximum number of runs in the time they had.

The team finished in first place, best among all the squads from Pocono Mountain, and good enough to move them on to the state competition in Altoona next month.

If they pass that bar, they'll go to the world competition in Michigan.

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