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Students make problems fun
Statewide competition draws 4,000 to BU

By George Basler
Press & Sun-Bulletin

VESTAL -- A garbage dump stood backstage Saturday in Binghamton University's Anderson Center Chamber Hall.

Called "Garbage Island," it featured empty soda bottles, milk cartons, egg cartons, crushed cans and other assorted items of trash plucked from a recycling center.

In this case, one person's junk was another person's treasure. A seven-student team from Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School on Long Island had molded the garbage into a prop that was featured in a skit the team performed Saturday during the state finals of Odyssey of the Mind at Binghamton University.

"I play a general weirdo, and that's fun to play because I am a weirdo, so I don't have to act," eighth-grader Sara Annese, 14, said with a laugh. She played Sir Soda Can in the skit.

Crazy creativity, outlandish plot lines, wacky costumes and colorful sets were the order of the day for Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem-solving competition for students in elementary school through high school.

A total of 228 teams from across the state, including 21 from Broome, Chenango and Delaware counties, converged on Binghamton University for the annual competition, drawing an estimated 4,000 students, coaches, officials and parents to the campus.

While Plainview-Old Bethpage was into garbage, fifth-graders from Binghamton's Thomas Jefferson Elementary School were into cheese as they performed in the "I'm Only Thinking of You" category.

Characters in their skit included Paris Stilton, Brie Tney Sears, Havarti Mandell and Extra Sharp Cheddar. Props included a cheese grater and cheese and crackers.

"They're a bunch of ham bones," said Abby Lovric, the team's co-coach, with a laugh. "It's incredible what these kids come up with," she added.

Teams, which could include up to seven students, were asked to solve one of five problems. They could either build structures or prepare skits. The top two teams in each division advance to the 2007 Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Michigan State University May 23-26. The winner of the Ranatra Fusca award for outstanding creativity also advances.

Characters in a skit put together by a team from Sidney Middle School featured a pirate who turned into Elvis Presley, and assorted fish -- a tiger shark, catfish, monkey fish and clown fish -- who performed songs made famous by Presley and Johnny Cash, among others. "You get to be something else, and that's fun," said eighth-grader Tanner Koza, 14.

One problem this year, "Tag 'em," required teams to design, build and run small vehicles that made trips and got "tagged" within a Tagging Zone.

Another problem, "Out of the Box Balsa," required teams to design, build and test a structure made of balsa wood and glue that balanced and supported weights.

The three other problems called for teams to prepare eight-minute sketches based on scenarios provided by Odyssey officials. Preparing for the eight minutes meant months of brainstorming, writing, creating props, making sets, rehearsing lines and forging team spirit.

"I love it because it allows students to learn how to work together to produce a product. They have be creative," said Diane Betzwieser, coach of a team from Shenendehowa High School, who has been coaching for 17 years, starting when her son, now 27, was in third grade.

Besides doing its set piece, each team also was presented with a problem it had not seen before and was judged on its quick thinking.

Carle Wirshba admitted to a few butterflies as his team prepared to go before the judges.

"Sports are a big thing at our school, but a lot of kids can't do sports. This gives them a chance to use their minds and be creative," said the 12-year-old seventh-grader from the Plainview-Old Bethpage team.

Camaraderie is fun, too, students said. Many contingents came wearing T-shirts promoting their teams.

Mary and Sam Tuso went even further, writing "Odyssey of the Mind Rocks" on their car window. They came to see their daughter, a high school sophomore in the York Central School District, compete, something she's been doing since second grade.

"It's in our blood," Mary Tuso said.

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