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Of one mind
Odyssey students pool their talents in exercises that tap collective creativity.


"Give us eight minutes and we'll change your mind" -- Odyssey of the Mind T-shirt.

In the annals of Greek mythology, it's safe to say folklore's mightiest hero never had to face the dreaded Fire-breathing, Horned, Cycloptic, Platypus of Doom.

Nor did he encounter a less-than-helpful god who holds stock in a scarf company that bears his name.

But in the clever world of Odyssey of the Mind, the legend of Heracles -- he's the muscleman we know as Hercules -- gets a twist the denizens of Mount Olympus never dreamed of.

Saturday saw the campus of Millersville University hosting hundreds of kids, parents and coaches for the Odyssey, an international educational program designed to provide creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Sixty-three teams from Eastern Central Region, which covers Lancaster, Berks and Dauphin counties, descended on MU, which was a first-time host.

"The intention is to foster kids' creativity," said tournament director Dr. Jill Craven. "Every aspect is done by the kids."

That translates to a lot of work -- enacted in a very short period of time. Just ask the team from Centerville Middle School, whose task was to stage the story of the 12 labors of Heracles -- with an extra "lost" labor added for good measure -- in eight minutes. That meant jettisoning some of Centerville's favorite ideas, like having macho Heracles slapped down by a magical tree.

"We kept saying we wanted to make a director's cut," said seventh-grader Chandler Adams, 13, who did multiple duties as a Greek king, the aforementioned Platypus of Doom, the giant Atlas (who tricks Heracles into taking over in the holding-up-the-world department) and Hermes, a god who spends more time concentrating on his fashion accessory business (Hermes scarves, get it?) than helping a frustrated Heracles find his way out of the forest.

"You need assistance, or a scarf?" he asks our hero, played by seventh-grader Matthew Hofstaedter, who sums up his whole ordeal by yelling "What in the name of Zeus?!"

Then there was that Fire-Breathing, Horned, Cycloptic, Platypus of Doom, a moniker always followed with the punch line "Why do you ask ...?" Safe to say the Minotaur or the Hydra never crossed paths with him.

It's all in fun, but there's serious science involved at Odyssey of the Mind. For Centerville and other teams assigned to stage "The Lost Labor of Heracles," the task was an exercise in cooperation and grace under pressure. "We did a heck of a lot of editing!" said Eleanor Frick, 13, an eighth-grader, and the final results yielded scrambling on stage in costume, setting up (sometimes unwieldy) sets and keeping things timed to the imposed limit. But that's just one of the, well, labors, Odyssey participants face.

In addition to "Heracles," Craven explained, there is also a vehicle-based problem (titled "Earth Trek," in which teams design and build a small vehicle that transforms its appearance four times in the course of its demonstration) and "Shock Waves," a favorite of Craven's, in which teams design a balsa wood structure that supports weight -- without weighing more than the equivalent of 15 paper clips itself. Rounding out the all-day contest are "Teach Yer Creature" (involving a team-built mechanical creature) and "Superstition," where kids explore the origins of favorite legends.

Also, students from kindergarten to second grade competed in their own problem-solving activity, titled "Candy Factory," about making healthy treats. Students from Reidenbaugh Elementary and Neff Elementary schools, both in Manheim Township, competed and were awarded prizes for taking part.

Odyssey of the Mind is divided into spontaneous problem solving (no witnesses allowed) and "long term," such as the "Heracles" skit. The Centerville team started working on their effort last October, meeting once a week, but that didn't last long.

"We started one day then two towards the end," said Marissa Karonfily, 14. That's par for the course, Craven noted.

"They can get together for as much or as little time as they like," she said.

Time well-spent wasn't an issue for Team Centerville, which forged fast friendships from their Odyssey ordeal. Win or lose, said Chandler Adams, "I'm going to give everyone a big group hug for effort."

As it turned out, the prize bearing the name of Heracles went to another school in the division in which Centerville competed. Team B of Daniel Boone Middle School, in Berks County, took that particular honor. Students from Neff Elementary School, however, won "Lost Labor of Heracles" in the elementary school division.

And Chandler could still direct that hug at some other Centerville classmates; another team from the middle school won in an Odyssey "Earth Trek" contest.

* Below are results for Lancaster County participants in Odyssey of the Mind. Saturday's winners advance to a state finals competition in Williamsport April 18 and possibly to the World Finals, to be held May 27-30 at Iowa State University, Ames:

* Problem 1, Division II, Earth Trek: Centerville Middle School.

* Problem 3, Division I, Lost Labor of Heracles: Neff Elementary School.

* Problem 4, Division I, Shock Waves: Bucher Elementary School.

* Problem 5, Division I, Superstition: Schaeffer Elementary School.

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