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Spitballs take aim at creative thinking
Problem-solving gets fresh approaches at Odyssey of the Mind.

"Where's the plunger?" came the nervous voice.

The six Brecht Elementary School students gathered in a hallway in Millersville University's Student Memorial Center had reason to worry about a missing toilet plunger.

They had discovered that suctioning the device on a board replicates bubble sounds.

And you need lots of bubble sounds because in the future everyone is living underwater.

Here's another thing the students discovered on their own: Silvery compact discs glued to foam make very good fish scales for mermaid tails.

All were vital props in a skit they were about to perform.

Thinking outside the box and being creative to solve fun problems is what drew the Brecht group Saturday to the 30th Odyssey of the Mind competition at MU. They were joined by more than 400 other students from kindergarten through 12th grade from area schools.

More than 60 teams from Lancaster, Berks and Dauphin counties descended on MU, which hosted the regional competition for the second straight year.

The educational but fun event grew out of a New Jersey college professor's teaching method in the 1970s of rewarding students more for taking risks and creativity than accuracy in solving problems in his industrial design classes.

Since then, the technique has swelled into an international event. Without adult guidance and fear of criticism, students in small teams tackle problems that may be technical, performance or artistic-based.

Neff Elementary School fourth-graders Justin and Christina Moore, Bryce Higgins, Hannah Jablonski, Natile Wilczak and Ethan Kile worked for months on a problem that their hands-off coach, Rachel Moore, described as "stuff shot out of things."

"They started off fighting all the time. It was not a clean process," says Moore. "Then I saw it all come together."

During a 15-minute performance before judges, families and fellow students, the kids pulled off their best routine yet.

Given the task of making airborne objects perform differently, they sent a rubber dart hurtling through the air with a large-scale slingshot. They threw spitballs at a target to make it spin.

"I accomplished it and everyone worked together really well," said an ecstatic Ethan Kile, 10, afterward.

The team had to wait three hours before going through the second part of the competition: giving spontaneous answers and solving problems on the spot.

They might, for example, be given a wooden spatula and be asked for creative ways to use it.

Over in the high school division, the Hempfield High team gave a brief skit that revolved around the discovery of archaeological treasures.

A motley crew of Indianapolis Jones (Alanna Kaiser), Dark Raider (Brady Landis), The Jokester (Alexa Landis), Phil Sky (John Grosh), Future Girl (Hannah Basciano) and Future Newsie (Grace Messner) were involved in a time-traveling race to save Philadelphia by plugging a Black Hole.

Afterward, the cast was ebullient.

"It's like the best feeling when you hear somebody laugh at a joke that we've heard so many times it's not funny," said a relieved Hannah Basciano.

The kids do everything themselves. For the Brecht costumes and props, that meant learning to sew and use a hot glue gun.

Teams have an adult coach but their role is minimal.

"Moral support, snacks and breaking up the fights," laughed Erika Bodell, who has coached seven Odyssey teams at Neff. Four of them went on to state finals and one in 2008 made it to the world finals competition.

"We're basically cheerleaders," adds her daughter, Morgan Bodell, a 10th-grader who coached the team this year as part of a project to satisfy a graduation requirement.

"We keep them focused and in Goldfish."

The kids' ability to create and work out problems is why Erika Bodell volunteers her time year after year to Odyssey of the Mind.

"It's a great venue for kids who may not be the most brainy or athletic," she says, "but still want to compete in something or be part of a group."

Other schools from Lancaster County competing in Saturday's regional event were Nitrauer Elementary, Martin Meylin Middle School, Centerville Junior High, Manheim Township Middle School and Bucher Elementary.

All the Lancaster County schools sent teams to the state finals April 10 in Williamsport, except Martin Meylin Middle School.

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