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Youth in `Odyssey of the Minda` contend for bids to East Lansing

The atmosphere was electric in the crowded rooms, auditoriums and hallways of Williamsport Area High School as the school Saturday hosted its second consecutive state Odyssey of the Mind tournament.

Organizers described the event, which attracted more than 1,000 participants on 156 teams, about 400 volunteers and several thousand more coaches, parents and supporters, as the academic equivalent of a state athletic championship.

"This would be like the state wrestling tournament because of all the participants," said Joe Weber, a volunteer on the Odyssey of the Mind tournament organizing committee.

"I expect there will be 3,000 to 4,000 people pass through these door today - at least that many," said tournament organizer Jerry Owens.

Odyssey of the Mind - or "OotM" to most people involved with the program - is an international educational program that encourages problem solving and creative thinking among students from kindergarten through college.

The atmosphere at the tournament was festive with an undercurrent of tension that might accompany any high-level competition.

"It's a very high-octane atmosphere. There's a lot of excitement and a lot of anxiety," Weber said. "The kids are very nervous and full of energy, as kids can be."

Participants form teams, typically organized through their school, that are broken into three divisions: Division I, elementary school; Division II, middle school; and Division III, senior high school.

Regional teams participating Saturday included teams from Williamsport Area High School, Loyalsock Township School District, St. John Neumann Regional Academy, Montgomery Area School District, Montoursville Area School District, the Community Theatre League, Southern Tioga School District, Wellsboro Area School District, Millville School District and Lewisburg Area School District.

In September or October, teams choose long-term "problems" from a menu developed each year by the OotM program.

Working tirelessly for months, teams develop skits or performances in which they solve their chosen problem, which includes a list of actions that must be successfully completed and stringent criteria for performing those actions. Participants develop their own costumes, props and equipment and must adhere to strict budget limitations.

The problem-solving performances are then presented during competitions before a panel of judges who grade the teams on creativity, success in completing the list of actions, originality, style and other criteria.

In addition to the long-term problems, teams are presented with a short-term problem that they must solve spontaneously.

Winners of the state competition will be eligible to go on to the world competition in late May at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.

Members of a team from Montgomery sat in a classroom "holding room" awaiting the call to march to another area to be given their short-term problem.

While most members of the team said they were low-key in their approach to the tournament, at least one - junior Brittany Berger - said she was very nervous.

"And I've been in this as long as anybody in the school," Berger said. "I've been doing this since third grade."

Craig Miller, the team's coach, said the appeal of OotM is that it is accessible to a wide range of participants.

"It has something for everybody. It's not just for a certain type of student," Miller said. "Anybody can excel at OotM."

Learning to solve day-to-day problems by "thinking outside the box" is something OotM participants can take with them long after they leave the program, said Rick Coulter, a Williamsport Area School District administrator acting as a liaison between OotM and the district.

"It's about 21st century skills you need to be successful," Coulter said. "You need creativity and that is the core of OotM."

"These are the kids who are going to be solving the problems of the world," he said. "They look at things from multiple perspectives. When you do that, you can find a better answer."

It also is about hard work and discipline.

A Division II team from Loyalsock Township said they worked "very, very, very hard" in preparing for the competition.

"Saturday became our sixth school day," said team member Cameron Hornberger, who is in his first year with OotM.

"(The team met) every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday - sometimes every day of the week," said Hornberger's teammate, sixth-grader Abigail Caldwell-Gatsos.

Odyssey of the Mind is in its 30th year. The OotM state tournament was, up until last year, held in Altoona for 20 consecutive years. This is the second straight year it has been held in Williamsport, Owens said.

According to Owens, it became too costly to hold the event in Altoona, so an alternate site was sought. Due to an outpouring of support from city and county government, local businesses, community organizations and residents, Williamsport emerged as the perfect location for the event, he said.

"They believed (the event) is good for the school district and good for the community," Owens said. "The community, the city and county have all stepped up to the plate and supported us in ways I could never have imagined."

According to Jerry S. Walls, a member of the state tournament committee, the amount of work that went into putting on the tournament was a "massive undertaking."

The competition will be held in Williamsport next year, Weber said.

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