By Jann Wiswall
Odyssey (n): a long and eventful journey.
Odyssey of the Mind is the perfect title for this international educational program for teams of elementary through college students to solve problems using creative thinking, brainstorming, teamwork and problem-solving skills. The program is designed to teach the concept that “a group is a more powerful thinking force than an individual.” To watch the students at work on their problems, one quickly sees that this program also is great fun and a source of pride as well.
Five teams of Ellicottville Central School students and their teacher-coaches are hard at work fine-tuning their projects for the regional tournament that takes place this Saturday, March 9, in Wellsville, where teams from 12 western New York school districts will be competing to advance to the state tournament.
Of the five mind-bending problems posed by the international Odyssey of the Mind program, the ECS teams chose three.
One elementary school team, coached by Diana Olson, is working on a problem that requires them “to design, build and run three vehicles that will deliver parts to an assembly area.” Further instructions require that the parts be assembled into a pet animal that then must perform a trick. There are all sorts of other requirements for the project that must be incorporated, including different delivery methods for each vehicle, creating a signal indicating that a vehicle is about to travel, performing a skit to describe the whole problem, and much more. This group of 4th and 5th graders came up with some ingenious solutions, such as using a ramp, a pendulum and a leaf blower to move their vehicles. They also wrote songs for their skits.
Two teams are working on another problem called “The Email Must Go Through.” This requires teams to develop a representation of an email “server” that can send and receive emails and filter spam. Once again, students must include a number of required elements in their solutions.
The elementary grade team, coached by April Donoghue, has created a nature theme to demonstrate their solution. It involves a giant beehive as the server and hamster balls and tennis ball containers as the email delivery devices. Their system sorts emails into a squirrel’s nest and spam into a box decorated with junk mail.
Meanwhile, a middle school team working on the same problem, with JoAnn Kurtis as coach, came up with a lottery game that uses ping pong balls and mini balloons to represent emails and spam. They created a fan-operated device that keeps the balloons flying around inside a huge plastic container, and a pneumatic-tube-like mechanism for return email.
The last two teams are working on a problem called “It’s How You Look at It.” Teams are asked to “present an original humorous performance” showing how a character they create acts “normally” in his/her own environment, but “oddly” in another character’s setting, and vice versa.
The middle school team working on this problem, coached by Jane Chew, has created a very colorful, animated character named “Roy G. Biv” (Red-orange-yellow Green. Blue-indigo-violet) who is in search of a new color. Playing on the Odyssey of the Mind acronym, a meditative character named Omm from “Ommmetropolis” enters Roy’s world wearing neutral colors. Each character visits the other’s environment where they are each out of place, but only odd by the other’s definition.
The high school team of 11th and 12th graders, coached by Caitlyn Keller with 11th grader and assistant coach Megan Westfall, also has addressed this problem in a creative way. Their main characters are an elderly man in a nursing home and a nurse. The man considers himself to be very hip, which makes him “odd” to the nurse in the nursing home setting, but when the nurse follows him outside of the home to visit with some “cool kids,” she’s the one who’s odd.
Ellicottville has been participating in the Odyssey of the Mind program for decades. Every year, one or more teams from the school have advanced to the state competition in Binghamton. In 2005, a team of 4th and 5th graders made it all the way to the World Finals, held that year in Colorado. They placed 13th in that competition.
Colleen Bower, who teaches kindergarten at ECS and is this year’s Odyssey of the Mind coordinator, explains that teams are made up of students in good academic standing who have been recommended for the program by their teachers. Because the problems are so involved, it takes teams months of after-school work to bring the solution from concept to completion.
“This is a great way for students of all ages to use their teamwork and creative thinking skills to come up with fantastic solutions to very complex and involved problems,” says Bower.