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Odyssey of the Mind participants on their way to Orlando

Six elementary students from Stanley Switlik Elementary School recently won a first place award at the regional Odyssey of the Mind tournament. This weekend they are headed to Orlando to compete in the statewide competition.

What is Odyssey of the Mind? OotM, as participants call it, is a creative problem-solving competition for students of all ages. Teams of students select a problem, create a solution and then present their solution to specially trained judges.

The six kids from Marathon -- Rachel Philcox, John Sheagrun, Takara McKnight, Zoe Voelliger, Rebecca Boucher and Sarah Rice -- wrote a short play about what the Olympics might look like in the year 4000.

"They studied history to learn about the first modern archaeologist to go looking for the remnants of the Olympic games in 1776," said Sara Matthis, who co-coaches the team with Jessie Thomson. "They not only studied history, they wrote the play, learned their lines, made all of the props used on stage and created their own costumes from discarded garments from their parents' closets."

Three other teams from the Marathon area also participated in the regional tournament and came away with a positive experience.

Matthis said that what makes this program so unique is that it really is the kids' best effort -- the adult coaches are permitted only to guide the group toward the problem's goals. Another important aspect of the program is the opportunity it gives regular kids. The program isn't designed for geniuses or jocks or kids with educational disabilities -- although all of these children can and do have a righteous place on the team.

"The only thing it requires of the kids is that they be problem solvers or free thinkers or miniature entrepreneurs," Matthis said. "It requires a positive attitude and hard work and a sense of humor. It requires kids of disparate age, ability and backgrounds to work together as a team."

Every year five or six problems are presented to the general public. Anyone can form a team, be it Girl Scouts or a church youth group. In Monroe County, the Odyssey of the Mind coordination is done largely through the public schools, although it is not a school program, per se.

"The School Board has been really supportive of the program," said Dan Powers, the regional director of Odyssey of the Mind, "and for that we are very thankful."

Odyssey of the Mind is an almost-free program. The membership costs $125 and there is also a small fee to register each team. Matthis said her team spent about $40 out of pocket to purchase duct tape and spray paint to build the props. The rest of the costumes and props were made out of "found" objects like fabric remnants and cardboard.

The Marathon team successfully raised more than $1,000 to make the trip to Orlando. Special thanks to Island Service, Optical Shoppe, Lion's Club, Stanley Switlik Elementary School, TIB Bank, Angela Butler, Key Colony Beach Golf Course and Quality Boat Rentals.

Every year there are more students who want to participate in the program than adult coaches who volunteer to lead a team. If you are interested in volunteering, call Sara Matthis at 305-240-0074.

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