Press of Atlantic City
Geniuses at work
By DIANE D'AMICO Education Writer, (609) 272-7241
Poisonous chemicals have infiltrated a lab full of scientists. The hazardous materials team has to figure out how to get the chemicals out.
Springing into action, and backed by the theme song to the movie "Ghostbusters," the Galloway Township Community Charter School's Odyssey of the Mind team created two small flatbed vehicles, each supporting a magnet. The poisonous chemicals, stored in magnetized soda bottles, were passed onto the vehicles and safely moved away.
"We gave the vehicles a performance upgrade for the state competition," hazmat technician Nick Risley said. "They were slowing down toward the end."
The hazmat scenario won the team of sixth- and seventh-graders a shot at the state competition.
Founded in 1978 by former Rowan University professor C. Samuel Micklus, the former Olympics of the Mind was designed as a competition in creativity. It has grown to almost cult status, with local, regional and state competitions all leading to the world finals, to be held at Michigan State University in May.
Sheryl Rasmussen has been involved with Odyssey of the Mind for more than 20 years, beginning with her three children. The Vineland High School teacher's team of juniors took first place in two categories at the state competition and are heading to the world finals this year.
"The team decided to compete in two challenges to improve their chances," Rasmussen said. "I've had this team since they were freshmen, and they constantly set their goals higher."
Rasmussen said she was initially attracted to the open-ended nature of the competition. Students are given a challenge and are free to resolve it however they want.
"The unofficial motto is that if the rules don't say you can't do something, then you can," she said. "You can really think outside the box."
For the Vineland High School team's project, students had to create small vehicles that would get "tagged" within a zone. They created a scenario in which they were bugs collecting food for the winter. They made elaborate bug costumes, and their "vehicles" were ants that dropped food into a basket on an ant hill.
The Galloway team considered being farmers collecting eggs before settling on the hazmat scenario.
Along the way were many small challenges. One was creating the silver hazmat suits. Plastic was too tight, and they couldn't move. Then they got the idea to use bubble wrap, wrap it in duct tape to get the silver effect and hold it together, then pop the bubble wrap to make the suit looser and more wearable. Buckets became helmets, and soda bottles were used to hold the "poisonous" substance.
"It's fun to create something that you wouldn't expect, then go out and beat another team with it," said Brian McAlister, who played a robot/computer on the Galloway team.
"I like the competition," Risley said.
The competition also includes a spontaneous exercise, basically an improvisation done on the spot before the judges. The combined scores determines the winners.
"For our spontaneous challenge, we had to rip a piece of paper, then talk about how we felt about it," Galloway sixth-grader Kelly Jenkins said.
Teacher Pam Fitzsimmons, who coaches the charter school team, said it is a challenge to learn how to guide the students without helping them too much.
"We get training on how to ask them questions to lead them to solutions rather than just telling them what they should do," Fitzsimmons said. "The hardest thing at first is getting them to do the problem-solving on their own and not just wait for an adult to help them."
The Galloway charter school students placed fourth at the state competition but were pleased with their performance as relative newcomers. They had gotten a chance to see some of the other age groups and were very impressed with the Vineland High School team.
Rasmussen said she likes that even though the students are very competitive, they also respect each other's work and often become friends with other teams.
With the world finals just a month away, the team also has a new problem to solve.
"We have to figure out how we're going to get all our costumes and stuff to Michigan," Rasmussen said. "It's all part of the process."
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