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'Tis the season for Odyssey of the Mind

Posted on Wednesday, April 8, 2009

While a group of fifth graders manufacture their own flying squirrel, middle schoolers work on a skit that features a "platycow" whose green milk will derail an arranged marriage. It's the season for Odyssey of the Mind and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School has three successful teams headed for state.

It's difficult to explain an Odyssey of the Mind competition, coach Julie Powell conceded. Each competition has two parts: the long-term problem and the spontaneous problem. Both the flying squirrel and the platycow are part of different long-term problems.

They began early in the school year when all three teams decided which long- term problem they wanted to solve, Powell said. Since the three school teams compete in different problems, they won't compete with each other. There are also two age categories represented by the three teams.

Each year there are five problems to choose from and they always include a technical problem, a structural problem, one that has to do with vehicles, one based on the classics of literature and one that is just creative, Powell said. The flying squirrel was the technical problem, but the middle schooler's platycow was part of a creative problem. The solutions to all the problems include a skit - usually a humorous skit.

At St. Vincent de Paul, Odyssey of the Mind teams are entirely extra curricular, Bob Kelly, coach of the middle school team, said. Some schools use the competition as part of their giftedand-talented curriculum, he said, but at St. Vincent's the teams are open to all interested students and coaches are always parents or grandparents. The teams also do their own fundraising, even when they needed $7,000 to travel to the world competition in Maryland last year.

The coaches role is only supervisory, Powell said. The kids make all the decisions and do all the work themselves.

"It's a good lesson in patience for the coaches," she said. When the 11-year- olds on her team used power tools, they did it themselves with an adult coach very close by, she said.

It was the team that assigned parts for the skit that featured the flying squirrel, she said. They chose to cast their only female member - Powell's daughter Katie - as the father and one of the six boys as the villain, an evil Barbie.

When the coach has to rein in the imaginations of their young teams, the only option is to ask them questions. Powell found herself often asking, "And how will you do that?"

The fifth graders found a way to make a stuffed animal that resembled a squirrel fly, dance, chew a pencil and talk. The mechanism from a recordable greeting card provided the voice and the team found ways to rig a circuit for the eyes and mouth that could be closed to make fans go around and lights go on. They refused to reveal all their secrets in the newspaper though. They still have to compete at state and, maybe, at world, Katie Powell said.

Meanwhile, the middle schoolers were using a borrowed sewing machine to make a costume that would be worn by two people; one of the requirements of their competition. None of them had any experience with sewing, Alex Beauchamp said.

Sometimes they disagree, but they can always talk it out, Kassandra Salazar said. And although they didn't know each other well when they began, the six team mates are now good friends.

His team is made up of natural storytellers, Kelly said. He wasn't surprised when they chose the problem that required acting skills. He's enjoyed watching them work.

Once they start, it's like popcorn, he said. "One goes off and than another," he said.

All three St. Vincent de Paul teams have worked one or two afternoons a week since August. When they aren't fine-tuning their skits and building sets and props, they practice solving spontaneous problems, Powell said.

The state championship will be in Newport next week, and the winning teams will be invited to the World competition in Ames, Iowa, in late May.

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