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North Penn hosts 'Odyssey of the Mind'

By: David Hare
TOWAMENCIN X Danielle Blanchard is the proud mother of a space chimp.

That's the part her son Zach played in a skit with six of his classmates from North Wales Elementary School at the Southeastern Pennsylvania "Odyssey of the Mind" (OotM) competition Saturday at North Penn High School.

Zach's team was entered in the "Nature Trail'R" competition which, according to the rules, required students to design, build and drive "a human-powered" vehicle and camper that went on a trip.

"They had to incorporate a nature trail, so they decided on the moon," Blanchard said of Zach and his teammates. "He was a monkey since that was the first living animal to go to the moon."

And since the rules specify that animal portrayals cannot "be like humans," she said, Zach incorporated sign language into his performance "because chimps can learn how to sign."

One of Zach's classmates and fellow "Space Busters" interpreted his hand gestures throughout the sketch. The students riffed on the theme song to the 1984 movie "Ghost Busters."

There were competitions in six different long-term problems and in four different age divisions. The "Nature Trail'R" problem was sponsored by NASA, according to the program book.

Amy Ryan Faga, OotM coordinator and a teacher at North Wales Elementary, said this year's competition with 25 teams was the biggest since 1993, when she first started coordinating the event for the North Penn School District.

In all about 1,500 students from the Southeastern Pennsylvania region were expected to compete Saturday, according to Faga.

"These students work so hard on these projects. It's really their work, the rules are very strict about that," she said.

There are rules for "what parents can do" and "what parents cannot do."

The "can do" column includes driving the team to buy supplies, transporting the props, and "applaud a lot and help get props offstage afterward."

What parents cannot do is suggest what to buy, fix anything that breaks, or criticize any part of a team's solution.

In the primary competition for grades K through 2, teams had to present a humorous performance that included a surprise party. Simple enough, only in this case, the surprise was that the party had to be given for "something that is not normally celebrated," according to the rules.

The team of Village Park Elementary School threw a surprise party to celebrate a fellow student's clumsiness. The science-fiction themed presentation ended with the clumsy boy turning over a table that held a cream pie which he ended up wearing on his face.

Well, the rules did say "a humorous performance." What's more humorous than a cream pie in the face? Judging by the laughter of the parents and judges, not much.

The next team to throw a surprise party was North Wales Elementary School.

This time the party was held for a robot who made it through potty-training. (A new Mel Brook's musical, waiting to be born?)

Deb Barnes, OotM regional director, said she's been associated with the competition since 1986, as both a student and, later, as a judge.

"Now it's about giving an opportunity to other kids," said Barnes, an assistant principal at Union Terrace Elementary School in Allentown.

As for all that rain on Saturday, it didn't seem to matter to Barnes or anyone else for that matter.

"On a rainy day like today," she said, "this is the only crowd I know who would walk in and say 'Hurray, we're here!'"

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