| The Citizen, Auburn NY |
Students blow audience, judges away

by Olivia Goldberg / The Citizen
Friday, March 16, 2007 11:44 PM EDT

When it comes to creative problem-solving at the annual Odyssey of the Mind competitions, students, coaches and everyone else involved hold this truth to be self-evident: it's the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Of all the teams that emerged from the regional competitions March 10 to head to the state rounds in Binghamton March 31, the competition from Weedsport Junior/Senior High School most successfully brought that concept home.

The Division III team's performance last weekend wowed judges enough to see them bestow Weedsport an infrequent honor : The Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award.

"We did not expect the creativity award, since it's rarely given," said Weedsport coach Judy Sheridan. Sheridan teaches art at the high school and has been involved with Odyssey of the Mind competitions on several levels - from judging to coaching - since the early 1980s.

The award, explains the Odyssey Web site, is presented when teams or individuals display "exceptional creativity" in either solving a given problem, "or an extraordinary idea beyond the problem solution."

The Latin term that inspired the award's name, Ranatra Fusca means "water insect." The phrase initially applied to a project students of Odyssey's founder, Sam Micklaus, undertook in 1981. Their assignment: to create a water flotation device to transport them across a pond.

One student-designed contraption, intended to let him stride atop the water, missed the mark. Yet its apparent genius wasn't lost on Micklaus and it contributes to the lore - and lure - of the competition today.

These days, Odyssey tournaments see teams compete among four divisions, which embrace elementary through college-level grades. High school students in grades nine through12 qualify for Division III teams.

The seven students on Weedsport Jr./Sr. High School's team impressed onlookers with their singular approach to solving the fourth of five assigned problems, titled "Out of the Box Balsa."

An Odyssey synopsis instructs teams to design, build and test a structure of balsa wood and glue, capable of supporting weights. Teams could also use other materials to complete the structure which, disassembled, would fit into a smaller box.

Teams were to remove all parts from the box at competition and - here's where innovation comes in - creatively assemble the structure before testing its capacity with actual weights.

To spectators' awe and judges' delight, the Weedsport team had included a long, illustrated scroll in their toolbox, which allowed students to assemble and test the weight-supporting structure against the backdrop of a skit. The resulting performance took its characters - and the larger assembly - through a "brain train" ride that traversed the "states" of Happiness, Creativity, Literacy and Insanity.

"The audience was just spellbound," Sheridan said, adding that the structure also successfully carried 100 pounds - more weight than any other assembled in the competition.

"From the time this train left the station until it reached its final destination, we were totally on board and mesmerized with the 'Brain Train,'" the judges commented in their overall nomination of Weedsport for the Ranatra Fusca award.

While the judges got to see the final product, Sheridan spoke from the perspective of someone who'd observed the students behind the scenes. She noted the commitment this year's crop of students demonstrated, as they juggled drama and sports activities, as well as personal schedules to attend to construction and rehearsals. Most students, familiar since elementary school with Odyssey of the Mind, certainly had a good handle on the kind of focus expected of them.

As Sheridan put it, "That dedication was what made them stand out."

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