| The New Haven Register |
Problem-solving skills honed at Odyssey

By Amanda Pinto
MADISON -- A group of sixth-graders recently performed a musical skit while taking a honey bee-shaped vehicle they'd built around a nature trail obstacle course. Next, they'll take the act to the World Finals.

The seven Dr. R.H. Brown Middle School students took first place in their category in the Connecticut Odyssey of the Mind competition in Bethel. They were one of five town teams to earn first or second place, finishes that won them spots at the World Finals in Michigan next month.

It is the first time so many town teams qualified, coaches said. Only New Canaan will send more teams to the international, creative problem-solving competition.

The Brown group's entry involved a performance marked by original lyrics -- all centering on bees and nature -- written to match famous Beatles songs.

Every aspect of the group's entry, including construction of the bee-shaped vehicle, costumes and script, is solely up to the children, coach Warren Dennison said.

"They all bring different skills. ... The trick is that they all participate in every facet, and when it's performance day, nobody gets to hide," Dennison said. "What we're trying to do is give the kids different skills, introduce them to things that they might not otherwise encounter, and at the same time step out of their comfort zone in an environment where no one is going to make fun of them."

Part of the magic of Odyssey is watching children cooperate and problem-solve as a team, said Jeanne Stevens, whose group of Brown and Island Avenue Elementary students won second place in their category for their comedy and rap-musical program about the Rosetta Stone and the Voyager space craft.

"It was interesting to watch them, being so young, learn to work together, to stand up for their opinions when they feel strongly about something, but doing it in a kind way. ... There are some adults that haven't learned that, and that for me is what Odyssey's about," Stevens said.

The teams have been working since autumn on their "problems," which were then presented in an eight-minute format at the state competition.

"There really isn't a right or wrong answer to the problem, so it's a lot of fun," said Singhei Yeung, 11, who is a member of Dennison's team. "It (involves) a lot of creativity."

It is just one of many valuable skills students hone when they participate in Odyssey of the Mind, said Jennifer Tung, who coaches a team of students from Brown and Walter C. Polson Middle School. They won second place for presenting six different propulsion systems, illustrated using a skit involving flying squirrels.

"This is a program that, when people are interviewing for jobs, and they see that you've done this, they really put you at the top of their lists now," Tung said. "They learn to problem-solve on their own."

Both Dave Schaller's Daniel Hand High School team and Julie Ainsworth's Polson and Brown team will advance to Worlds because of their scores in a problem for which they created balsa wood columns and stacked weights on them during a performance. Schaller's team was able to stack 732 pounds of weight onto the 18-gram structure, winning a category that was uncontested in the high school age group.

Ainsworth's team won second place in their category, and hope to improve on their performance at Worlds, she said. Several of the teams -- including Ains-worth's -- have been to Worlds before and are looking forward to having fun and improving upon past finishes.

"It's pretty fun, because you can (trade state pins) with other teams, you can have a buddy team from another country, and there's more competition as well," said sixth-grader Spencer Ainsworth, 12.

The five Madison teams will begin competition May 26 at Michigan State University.

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