| The Press-Enterprise |
Defending a raisin as being a healthy food part of Odyssey of Mind experience

A raisin is accused of being unhealthy and must defend itself to its food peers. A disaster movie and soap opera are presented about the discovery of the Hope Diamond and the Balloon Dog Sculpture.

These are the challenges the Odyssey of the Mind team from Riverside 's Earhart Middle School placed first and second place in recently in Palm Springs , qualifying them for the California state competition Saturday.

The program invites teams to solve problems ranging from building mechanical devices to interpreting literary classics on a local, state, national and international level. Twenty-seven teams including the United States will compete in the international competition at Michigan State University in May.

Husband-and-wife team Dr. Lynn Larsen, assistant professor of Education and Special Education at Brandman University; Dr. Paul Larsen, associate professor of Biochemistry at UC Riverside, and Mrs. Marie Coover, Earhart Middle School teacher, coached the only teams in the Riverside Unified School District that compete in the Odyssey of the Mind, an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college.

Lynn Larsen said that she and her husband first saw a competition when they were students at Purdue University in 1991 and decided to get involved with the program when they had children.

"We were so impressed by the teamwork, intelligence and creativity of the students, that we had to get involved," she said.

The couple began the program at Kennedy Elementary in 2005 and have been team coaches since. Twin siblings Hannah and Zachary Larsen, seventh-graders at the middle school, participated in both teams this year.

"The students have a specific criteria and a budget to create costumes, props and scenery. It's quite amazing, as everything is done by the kids," she said.

Lynn Larsen said the two teams have rehearsed since October and must memorize lines and do blocking for a stage. The teams present their creation in front of a panel of judges and are also given a spontaneous challenge they must solve such as a verbal question or creating something, such as using household materials to build a stage prop and a story to support it. Whatever challenge they receive, the response must be creative and the students must work as a team.

Larsen said the Food Court Team, the first-place winner, wrote an original script about a food item accused of being unhealthy. The team's play about a raisin that caused wrinkles was presented as a soap opera, and a Star Trek spoof. The presentation was awarded the Renatra Fusca Award for outstanding creativity. This award was only given to two of the 81 teams that competed. Food Court team members were Daniel Jerz, Krystal Gonzalez, Hannah Larsen, Katelyn Gregori, Yuna Shin, and Zachary Larsen.

The Discovered Treasures team wrote an original script about the discovery of archeological treasures, the Hope Diamond and the Balloon Dog Sculpture and presented as a soap opera and disaster movie.

Discovered Treasures team members were Daniel Jerz, Krystal Gonzalez, Hannah Larsen, Zachary Larsen, Kathy Chen and Reysha Patel. They won second place in their division. Both teams advanced to the state competition.

"The students love it. They are usually high performing GATE students, and they love the challenge," said Lynn Larsen.

She said that two teams from one school is unusual, as well as the fact five of the eight students had never competed before.

Zachary Larsen, 12, said he played a brick of pepperjack cheese in the Food Court competition and an Irish/goddess person named McDonald on the Discovered Treasures team.

"It's a good way to spend free time and I love acting," he said.

Hannah Larsen played a bunch of grapes and a queen in the performances.

"It's nerve wracking, but afterwards, you feel really great," she said.

Katelyn Gregori played the raisin in the Food Court.

"It has given me lots of tools, team skills and a lot more creativity. I like how we get to make our own play and run it," she said.

"There's a lot to be proud of with both teams heading to the state," said Lynn Larsen. "This program promotes creativity, teamwork, problem solving-everything we need for our future leadership of the country."

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