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Odyssey' sparks inspiration in students

By Heather Simione
WOODSTOWN Students from both ends of New Jersey, and all areas in between, converged at Woodstown High School to participate in New Jersey Odyssey of the Mind Saturday afternoon.

Woodstown High School and Mary S. Shoemaker School teamed up with other academically driven students, applying their creativity to solve problems that ranged from creating motorized vehicles to interpreting literary classics.

The competition is an international program that provides creative problem solving opportunities for students kindergarten through college.

More than 150 teams in the state of New Jersey competed in the program.

New Jersey Odyssey of the Mind is sponsored by Creativity Unlimited, a non-profit organization based here in the Garden State that was developed for the sole purpose of bringing Odyssey of the Mind to students.

The Woodstown SnakeDogs, as they call themselves, are a team of seven senior high school students who have chosen The Wonderful Muses as their problem to shakedown through creative dance.

In Greek Mythology, muses were the source of inspiration for the creative works of artists and scientists, said team member Michael Drake.

The team's problem is to create and present an original performance that includes one of the nine Greek muses.

"The muse of the dance we chose was Terpischore," said Ian Frazier. "The muse will use the artform attributed to her during two moments of inspiration when all the characters in the scene, except the muse, will freeze."

Terpischore's focus was to inspire two people during the performance one a historical figure, the other a team-created person both of whom made an actual positive contribution to the world.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, was the historical figure these student chose as the muses historical figure to inspire.

The team members used a giant prop shaped like a mouth and positioned themselves as the teeth. They used the tapping sounds of his teeth as Morse's inspiration for him to invent the communication devise.

Lianne Koerner spoke on how the competition broadened her sense of who she really can be in later years to come.

"Academically yes, it helps us to go beyond the bigger and better in the classroom, but personally it's a lot about teamwork, responsibility and broadening horizons," said Koerner.

Pittsgrove Middle School student Anthony Mercoli agreed that even through the program challenges him beyond a 5th-grade level, it's really just about having fun away from the rigor of schoolwork.

"I'm a busy person on Saturdays and Sundays," said Mercoli. "Then, through the week there is school five days, and because I'm in the 5th grade now I get a lot of homework. This doesn't leave me much time to be with my friends. I wanted to do this because I need to have a little fun in my everyday life."

Mercoli's team worked in the category of Tee Structure, which Patricia Hatton coordinator of the event agrees is one of the most challenging problems to creatively solve.

The team's problem was to design and build a structure using only balsa (toothpick) wood and glue. The team performed a test on the structure, supporting it with weights that were balanced on golf balls without touching anything else.

"We had an eight-minute time limit to build the structure and made it to 35 pounds, said Mercoli. "The judges let us collapse it for fun and found that it could have actually held 115 pounds. That's the most held in three years."

Jesse Schaeffer said academically it's expanded their independent thinking process and better prepared them for a higher institution of learning.

"We've decided as a team that we're not talking about our college choices until after the competition," said Schaeffer. "With everybody asking us, it just put too much pressure on us to perform. This has taught all of us, I think, to stay focused and driven in Odyssey and later when we enter college."

Hatton said all students excel academically and are within the top 10 percent of their class.

"I don't want to talk about them leaving either," said Hatton, choking back tears. "They've all been with me since they started high school and some have been doing this since seventh grade. It was a marvel to see them expand their verbal and thinking skills when they traveled to Germany for a competition. They were paired up with a team from Russia and Ukraine. It was a language barrier, but it's been a stretching experience to see them communicate creatively outside their language."

Bernie Selman, a competition judge from Freehold, said judges are looking for students that stay within the competing guidelines and creatively develop a solution with style exceeding the required criteria.

A Delaware Association Judge Ron Raab-Long said, as an example, it's not enough to solve the problem of walking from beginning of the room to the other side it must be done with flare to capture a judge's attention.

"It's not enough just to walk," said Long. "You must walk like an Egyptian or do backflips."

Two regional competitions are held annually in the spring to get students here at this level of competition.

The Woodstown High School team placed second and has advanced to the World finals to be held at the University of Maryland in May. The Vineland High School team placed first and has also advanced to the World Finals. The Pittsgrove MAPSA team placed third.

This competition will qualify the competing teams for the world competition, to be held later this year in Baltimore, Maryland.

More than 29 countries and thousands teams compete in the competition.

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