| North County Times |
Area students learning while preparing for 'Odyssey of the Mind' regional competition

By: AARON CLAVERIE - Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008 11:15 PM

WILDOMAR ---- The angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees. If one of the angles is a 90 degree angle and the other two are 45 degree angles, the triangle has to be an isosceles triangle.

Tyler Shelter is dressed like a pirate, sitting at one of the hard plastic tables in the courtyard at William Collier Elementary School. He's got the puffy shirt, the hat and a stuffed-pillow cudgel (because, as he pointed out, swords would be dangerous).

Tyler, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, knows all of the above about triangles because he has been working for the last few months, with a team of six fourth- and fifth-graders, on a project that involves stacking weights on a structure made of thin sticks of balsa wood.

Today, at an "Odyssey of the Mind" competition in Palm Springs, Tyler and his team of pirates, calling themselves the "Emerald of Azmad" (it's a "World of Warcraft" thing), will find out how much weight their structure can hold. The team also will be judged on the creativity of the pirate-themed skit they will present while they add weights to the structure.

Odyssey of the Mind is an international education program, administered by a New Jersey-based corporation, that stages competitions for various age groups of children who are given a chance to creatively present solutions to seven different types of problems.

The problems, divided into categories that include "dinostories," "wonderful muses" and "road rally," teach kids about earth science, engineering and paleontology. The theatrical aspect to the competition rewards colorful staging and good performances.

The focus is on working together ---- and within a budget ---- to creatively find an answer to a problem, according to Odyssey's Web site.

If William Collier's Emerald team makes it out of the Riverside County competition in the balsa wood category, they will compete in the state contest and possibly the national finals after that.

In a twist this year, the balsa wood category requires the students to place the weights on golf balls that have been perched atop the structure.

Isosceles triangles in particular, Tyler found out, are very important in these types of structures because they can be put together to evenly distribute a large amount of energy.

While he still plans to pursue his career goal of being a professional football player, he's considering becoming an engineer as his backup plan, he said.

Mallie Donohoe, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, said the pirate theme evolved out of an idea that included shooting golf balls out of cannons. Mallie, sitting at the same table with Tyler, is the team's propmaster and costume designer. While she couldn't get Tyler to wear a peg leg, she was successful at getting him in the puffy shirt.

William Collier, which sent seven teams to compete in each of the various categories, is the only school in the district participating in Odyssey of the Mind, but the other elementary schools offer similar programs or activities for the students in their respective "gifted and talented education" programs, district spokesman Jose Carvajal said.

Last year, William Collier's balsa wood team went to the state competition with a structure that held more than 50 pounds.

Tyrus Johnson, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, was a part of that team.

"It was exciting, one of the best experiences I've ever had," he said. The most stressful part of the competition is when the weights were being added.

"I was saying, 'Please don't break, please don't break, please don't break,'" he said.

Tyrus is competing again this year with a new team that includes Gabriel Manzo, a 10-year-old fifth-grader.

In between crunches of "Flamin' Hot Cheetos," the pair explained their skit, which features country bumpkin astronauts setting up a base (the balsa wood structure) on a far away planet. Aliens, wearing Styrofoam chest plates and cheap sunglasses (inexpensive items that helped keep costs down), help finish the base by adding the weights. There also is a musical interlude that involves a saxophone-playing member of the team and a rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Jordan Davis, a 10-year-old fifth-grader who was wearing a bright red robe as a part of his costume, is participating today in the wonderful muses, which has students presenting a biography of a famous historical figure.

Their skit involves a group of kids waking up (ergo the robes), getting on the bus and then getting to "iSchool," a school in the future that is apparently branded by Apple, and then putting on virtual reality helmets and then going to the past and then talking to a historical figure, Jordan explained in one breathless burst of a sentence.

Finding a historical figure to profile was harder than Jordan and his team expected, he said.

Their first couple of choices, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, did not die before 1950, one of the Odyssey's small-print rules for historical figures.

Enter Charles Babbage, a prominent 19th century engineer who developed an early version of a mechanical computer.

"He made the first sketch of a computer," Jordan explained when asked about Babbage, who died in 1871.

Linda Johnson of Wildomar, Tyrus' mom and a parent coach of the Emerald team, said the best thing about the Odyssey program is the freedom it gives the students to use their imaginations and do all of the work themselves.

"We're not there gluing the structure for them or sewing things. They cut their own PVC pipe. They glue everything; make all their own backdrops. It's not the parents all doing it," she said.

Talking about the inventive skits that accompany each of the problems, Johnson said, "They come up with wild ideas and it all comes together."

Contact Aaron Claverie at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2624, or e-mail aclaverie@californian.com.

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