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Local students gear up for state Odyssey of the Mind competition

By Magdalena Wegrzyn

LONGMONT -- Mary Kocinek's basement transforms into a Western jail house once a week.

With duct tape and a sheet, a stroller becomes a covered wagon. A cane doubles as a rifle. Plastic coconut shells mimic the sound of horse hooves.

And it's all for Alpine Elementary's third and fourth grade Odyssey of the Mind team, which Kocinek coaches. The team decided to tackle one of the more tactile projects: building an 8-inch balsa wood structure to support as much weight as possible.

The real dilemma came from figuring out an entertaining way to present the project.

There were several suggestions -- mutant beavers, aliens and fishing.

But the team finally decided on a Western skit. As soon as the jail house lock -- the balsa wood structure -- splinters under the weights, a caged inmate escapes from the cardboard jail to wreak havoc.

"You get a lot of independence and you don't have a lot of parents bossing you around," said fourth-grader Brenna White, 10, who portrayed the inmate.

Alpine is one of 69 Colorado teams that will compete in the Odyssey of the Mind state competition Saturday at Silver Creek High School.

The entire program is designed to encourage students to creatively approach problem solving, said Teri Keeler, Odyssey of the Mind coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District.

"The most appealing thing is that it's 100 percent kid-created," Keeler said. "They don't have the barriers, and they don't have people telling them what they can and can't do."

During regional competitions in Berthoud and Littleton, 26 teams from 14 district, charter and parochial schools in the Longmont area scored high enough to qualify for the state competition. Top-scoring teams at state can qualify for the World Finals from May 27 to May 30 at Iowa State University.

Although the program is open to students from kindergarten through college, most entries come from elementary school teams.

A team of freshmen from Longmont Christian is one of eight high school teams that qualified for state.

"The secret is you let the boys do what they want and have as little adult interference as possible," said coach Debbie Charles, who supervised the six students as they built a miniature plastic remote-controlled whale that pretends to play the guitar.

Competitions are broken into two sections: a prepared project and a spontaneous portion, which tests teams on impromptu responses.

For the long-term projects, teams can choose to address one of five projects: building the weight-bearing balsa wood structure, creating a mechanical creature, interpreting a Greek classic, designing a small vehicle and performing a skit about superstitions.

"The parameters they provide for each problem are so loose, so you're not stifling the kids' creativity," Keeler said.

And there's no lack of creativity among Central Elementary's team of third- and fourth-graders. Their rendition of the tale of Heracles includes a muse that sings Beatles songs, a quest to slay a Hydra with bad breath and Harpo the Hyper Harpy, a half-chicken, half-woman creature.

Harpo originated during an initial brainstorm about mythological figures.

"Someone said, 'What's that one that's like Harpo something?'" said Jim Walker, the team's coach.

An ardent Marx Brothers fan, Walker cracked up.

"I think I laughed the hardest at that one," he said. "They saw from my reaction that it was a winner."

As coach of the Thunderhawks team, Walker said he just lets the kids' creativity take over.

"Our job as coaches is just to ask questions and expose them to things," he said.

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