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Odyssey of the Mind goes big in first year

By Jennifer Vincent
The University of Maine's recently founded Odyssey of the Mind team has reached several milestones this semester, including final recognition by Student Government and their first state competition on Saturday in Sanford.

Odyssey of the Mind is an international, competitive and educational improvisation and problem-solving program. It has divisions for all ages, from preschool children to senior citizens.

Each team chooses a long-term problem to solve in the course of a short performance, usually a play, to perform at competitions. The teams also sharpen their creative thinking skills for a five- to 10-minute spontaneous challenge. Both components factor into a team's final score.

UMaine's OotM team was founded during the fall semester by second-year sustainable agriculture student Mary Plaisted. She had participated in Odyssey of the Mind for seven years before coming to UMaine and wanted to continue with the experience.

The teams cannot be larger than eight people, and UMaine currently has seven competing members. There are approximately 12 to 14 people who will occasionally practice with the group when they have spontaneous challenge workshops and complete tasks like building bridges of spaghetti and raisins. According to Plaisted, these meetings are "open to anyone who wants to involve themselves in creative problem-solving."

Plaisted said OotM allows members to "revisit being a kid and find that imagination that we've been hiding behind all of our studying."

UMaine's team is currently the only college-level OotM team in Maine. For this reason, they automatically placed first at states and qualified for World Finals in Michigan this year. Plaisted said the team opted out of competing because they are still new and don't have the funding, but will reconsider in future years.

For their competition in Sanford, the team prepared for a long-term problem called "Nature Trail'R." With a budget of $145, the team had to build a human-powered vehicle and camper that could overcome various obstacles. All age groups chose from the same list of problems and arrived at different results. Groups present their solutions at competitions in the form of plays.

"Our play -- the whole thing -- takes place underground," Plaisted said. "But maybe two towns over there's a junior high with the same problem, and they might set it in Candyland or the rainforest. It's all about imagination and creativity."

Unlike Plaisted, most members of the team are new to OotM. They come from a variety of majors and backgrounds, but Plaisted says every member has a skill or talent to contribute.

Team member Britney Mitchell, a second-year theater student, said her experience with performing and thinking on her feet has been helpful because a lot of OotM is improvised. She said the program has been a valuable experience for her as a theater student and as someone who likes being involved in groups.

"It really pushes you creatively, and if you love building or acting or being a part of a team, it is a wonderful environment," Mitchell said.

Another team member, second-year studio art student Danielle Dubaybetters, said the original and challenging problems are one of the reasons she enjoys Odyssey of the Mind.

"It's not often that you have $145 to build a car that can change its appearance and a number of other things," she said. Mitchell agreed.

"You get to consider solutions to problems that may not be realistic, but you have to make them realistic," Mitchell said.

Dubaybetters said the team also has to work from limited resources and often from a random array of materials. Another obstacle is working around the members' schedules and finding times to meet. She said that Odyssey of the Mind often conflicts with her schedule, but that would not prevent her from doing it again.

The group's plans include fundraising for future competitions and holding more creative thinking workshops on campus.

"We definitely want to engage ourselves with the student body," Plaisted said.

Dubaybetters hopes the student body will become more aware of the Odyssey of the Mind team and more people will become involved, not just for fundraising purposes but to ensure the group will continue for years to come.

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