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Brainiacs unleashed

By Kelly Voll / The Citizen

WEEDSPORT - Weedsport Middle School's Odyssey of the Mind team, one of dozens in the county, is working diligently - while shrouded in secrecy - to prepare for the regional tournament on March 13 at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES.
Jill Connor / The Citizen
Weedsport Odyssey of the Mind participants Nicole Landes, 12, left, and Jennie Bruno, 13, work on the backdrop of their project for the upcoming regional competition, in the classroom of their teacher Ashley Kukula on Wednesday.
The 2009 -'10 team of seven formed last November, said Ashley Kukula, district coordinator for Odyssey of the Mind. Team members have been meeting to study, brainstorm and practice. Meetings are private, as the team's carefully formed solution to its problem question is classified information.

“Students are definitely learning critical thinking,” Kukula said. “They're learning to be resourceful because they have a cost limit.”

The team's resources to solve the problem must cost $125 or less, said Kukula. Even if students find free materials, such as paint in a relative's garage, they must estimate a cost and figure it into their analysis. This ensures no team finds its way to hundreds of dollars of free resources for use in the tournament. This would give a team an unfair advantage, Kukula said.

The Weedsport Middle School team must solve a “performance” problem, which involves a skit, Kukula said. The problem's title is “Food Court.” Students must present an eight-minute comedy skit where one food item accuses another of being unhealthy. The accused must defend itself. A jury of food items, not depicted by team members, must debate the case and present its decision to the audience, according to the 2010 problem synapses posted at the Odyssey of the Mind Web site.

“The skit is a huge part,” Kukula said.

The team must also prepare for “spontaneous problems,” which are questions kept secret until the tournament. Students do not have these to study, so they rely on former spontaneous problems to review. Students are timed when they answer these, and teams can get points for creativity in their responses.

Teams that win first place in the regional tournament can proceed to the state tournament, to be held March 27 at Binghamton University this year. Teams are only allowed to refine their skit props in the time between regionals and states. If teams win first or second place at states, they are eligible to progress to a world tournament, which attracts teams from all over the globe, Kukula said. The world tournament is from May 26 to 29 at Michigan State University.

“I think they feel very proud and very accomplished (when they win at tournaments),” Kukula said. “I think they can really understand where all their hard work went.”

Part of the reason Odyssey of the Mind is so challenging is because there is a strict “no outside assistance” policy. Every part of the team's work, from the initial brainstorming of ideas to the construction of materials must be done solely by team members, Kukula said.

“A coach may ask questions and help students ask themselves questions, but he or she may not provide any ideas,” Kukula said in an e-mail. “This is why, when a team wins, they truly own the accomplishment.”

The Weedsport Central School District has a history of recent wins in Odyssey of the Mind tournaments. Last year, a Weedsport Elementary School team went to the states and earned second place, which allowed the team to go on to the world tournament, Kukula said.

A high school team also won second place at last year's state tournament, which made the team eligible for the world tournament. The team declined the invitation, however, due to scheduling conflicts.

In the Weedsport district, a student could potentially be involved with Odyssey of the Mind for 10 years, from third through 12th grade, Kukula said.

Due to limited coaches and resources, joining a team isn't automatic. At the middle school, all students can try out. At the elementary level, places on a team are offered first to students in Gifted Educational Activities and Resources, an enriched learning program, Kukula said.

Some students on this year's middle school team are returning members from last year.

“I've done it in the past; it's really fun to express your ideas in a team,” said Josie Field, seventh grader. “I think it will help me be a lot more creative with class projects.”

Another returning member, seventh grader Nicole Landes, said she joined again because she had a good experience last year.

“I wanted to see how the new brains connect in competition,” she said. “Our goal is to get into states this year, because we got second (place in regionals) last year.”

New member Alicia Arnold, eighth grader, said she joined because other students told her it was fun.

“I thought it would be really fun to be creative,” she said. “On spontaneous (questions), you have to be creative and one small idea can turn into something really big.”

Staff writer Kelly Voll can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 239 or kelly.voll@lee.net

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