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Odyssey of Mind builds character

It may sound like a song from the 1960s, but Odyssey of the Mind is a unique academic program designed to encourage students to creatively tackle problems and find solutions.

On Apr. 5, Pelican Marsh Elementary boasted two teams, Road Rally and Dino Stories, in the annual Sun Regional Odyssey of the Mind competition at Cypress Lake High School. The Dino team took fourth place in the competition.

"That was pretty exciting for me as their coach and team," Charla McHenry says of the placement. "All of them were first time 'OM'ers."

Unlike most sporting events, Odyssey of the Mind competition offers a chance for students to approach problems in a creative manner. Yet, the right solution can lead to a number of answers. Teams also learn to appreciate the ideas of other students in their group to find solutions to a theory, question, or problem.

This year's Dino Stories team tackled the dinosaur extinction question -- "What happened to the dinosaurs that existed so many years ago?" Using drama, music and lyrics, students created skits based on their theory of how dinosaurs became extinct and then practiced and performed the presentations for classmates and competition.

In their performance, students fashioned a mandrill mask out of papier-mache to depict an animal that may have existed back in the time of the dinosaurs. Then they created a Leptoceratops dinosaur mask to represent a veggie-eating dinosaur that walked the earth back in the Cretaceous era.

Their hand-made set took hours of labor in painting it, complete with palm trees and an erupting volcano.

"Odyssey of the Mind is a problem-solving competition. It is not a scholar bowl. It is done in a creative manner," explains McHenry, mother of three Odyssey participants. "There's no right answer, but there are different problems."

Other teams competing in the competition included North Naples and Oakridge middle schools and Seacrest Country Day School.

McHenry would like to see more schools in Collier County participate in Odyssey of the Mind.

"If there are people who'd like to be involved or retired teachers who can give two-and-a-half to six hours of their time, everyone is welcome to help," she says of the commitment.

During spontaneous competition, teams respond to an unfamiliar question posed to the group.

"They get one minute to think, and three minutes to respond," McHenry explains. "The question may be, for instance, 'If you could design a bumper sticker for Santa's sleigh, what it would say?' "

Hands-on exercises were also included, such as building a tower as large as possible with Popsicle sticks.

Overall, McHenry is thrilled with the impact of Odyssey of the Mind on her children. "It's been very positive. They have no problem speaking in front of other children," she says.

Heidi Swanson echoes McHenry's observations and is pleased with how OotM has brought a new perspective into the creative process of her daughter, Gwen, a fifth-grader at PME.

"If anything, it's a great preparation tool for middle school. It forces kids to work together in a group," Swanson says. "When they go to middle school, they will know that everybody can contribute something to a group. There are a lot of adults who don't know that."

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