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Complex creativity: Odyssey of the Mind challenges students mentally

By Joseph Szydlowski
For Alexander Luna, delivering a bottle of water to somebody involves two toy cars taped together racing down one convoluted racing track before dropping onto, and rushing down, another track.

Then the cars nudge a bottle of water into a Crayola box that zips along a fishing line to the recipient.

Yet, he said, it's nowhere near complicated enough.

"We're getting scored on how complex it is, the creativity and how useful the device is," Alexander said.

He and his team of four other Mountain View Middle School students placed first in one category of the 2011 Odyssey of the Mind regional competition Feb. 26. The competition features two steps: a problem-solving episode and a spontaneous challenge.

"Sometimes it's doing something with straws or building a tower, sometimes it's a verbal challenge," said Donna Scott, who coached one of North Woods Discovery's teams, of the spontaneous challenge. One verbal problem, she said, might ask students to come up with something that catches something else, like a baseball player catches a ball, or a snowboarder catches air. She said the more creative the response, the more points earned.

For the second challenge, teams from all grade levels have to engineer a solution to one of five problems, ranging from constructing a tower out of balsa wood to creating a short play with specific characters, said Sue Crandell, co-director of the North State Odyssey.

They find out about it earlier in the year and have a budget of $100 to $150 to solve it, she said.

Each contraption must complete at one or several tasks in less than eight minutes. Each category has a first and second place slot.

Alexander and his group chose the "As Good As Gold Berg" problem. It builds off the Rube Goldberg machines, ludicrously complex devices that complete mundane tasks, such as wiping a nose, teeing a golf ball or, for the 2011 Odyssey of the Mind, delivering a bottle of water to someone who can't reach it.

Alexander said his team had a late start, but managed to brainstorm and put together their contraption in about a week.

Scott said her kids' team, a group of junior high students from North Woods Discovery, chose the "Extreme Mousemobiles" challenge.

"The boys in the group wanted to do some hands-on problem. The girls wanted to do the acting and play writing," Donna Scott said. "The one with the cars solved both problems."

The students made two mouse-trap-powered vehicles from spare parts including old records and CDs for wheels, said Rainie Scott. He said his group tied a string to a stick, which is attached to a mouse trap spring. As the spring unwound, the yarn spun the wheel's axis and propelled it.

His team placed second after their pair of jalopies succeeded at each trial, save one, before time ran out.

Alexander said his team's project encountered its own road bumps. When the first run failed, he said, they had to quickly restart the device.

"My friend Ryan stepped in and did like a sales pitch," Alexander said. While the others worked to reset the mechanism, he pretended it was an infomercial, while Alexander and the others mimed building the machine during the reset.

"He told the (judges) to call a number, like they were bidding on their phones," Alexander said.

That helped the group's presentation score, he said.

Donna Scott, who coached her children's team, said she worked to find the group space and time to work on their vehicles.

"These are supposed to be kid-generated ideas," she said. "The hard part for me, as a coach, is just having to put virtual duct tape on (my) mouth and stay out of their decision process."

The 11 winning teams, including Alexander's, are invited to the statewide competition in Brentwood, Crandell said.

Donna Scott said her team won't attend because the teammates have other commitments.

Alexander said his team is going to focus on improving and complicating their contraption. His team will join the other North State winners to compete at the March 26 event in Brentwood. The winners there will go on to the competition May 27-30 in College Park, Md.

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