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Odyssey of the Mind Tourney’s Ahead

By Mary Heyl

March is upon us and spring training has begun, but not just for Major League Baseball! Students at Ellicottville Central School have been busily preparing for the upcoming regional competition of Odyssey of the Mind. On Saturday, March 12, ECS students will be traveling to Allegany-Limestone Central School to compete against students representing more than 20 schools in Western New York.

Odyssey of the Mind (OM) is an 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.” OM asks students to engage their creativity, draw on the strengths of each team member, and take risks in order to find a solution to five different problems.

According to Colleen Bower, OM coordinator at ECS, teams were selected in October, and in November students began working on long-term problems to solve with their teammates in preparation for the regional competition. Students work in teams of five to seven students, all of whom are in the same age division. Division I consists of elementary students (fourth and fifth grade); division II consists of middle school students (sixth through eighth grade); and division III consists of high schoolers. This year, ECS has five teams: three in Division I and two in Division II. Bower is excited to announce that 20 students have joined OM this year, as well as three new coaches!

What makes OM unique among other academic competitions? Unlike school quiz teams and spelling bees, students are not asked questions that have clear right or wrong answers. OM provides students with open-ended problems that cover a range of interests and abilities to incorporate the strengths and experiences of each member.

OM gives teams the option of choosing from five problems. This year, in Problem 1, students consider the environmental impact of recycling by building, riding, and driving a recycling vehicle that moves without pedals and deposits recyclables to places to be re-used. Problem 2 is both mechanical and theatrical, as students work on designing a machine to simulate different styles of fishing. Students are assigned different roles to portray the angler, as well as a potential catch that doesn’t want to be caught! Problem 3 also engages students’ dramatic abilities through a performance based on one of Aesop’s fables, while Problem 4 requires the team to create a strategic design of balsa wood and glue that balances and supports as much weight as possible. Lastly, in Problem 5, students create a comical performance that portrays problem solving from the perspective and experience of three different animals who are all working to save the animal population from an outside threat.

During the competition, teams perform their solutions and demonstrate to the judges what sets their solution apart from that of other teams; these points for style are crucial to a team’s success. They also have to solve a “spontaneous” problem that is given to them on the day of the competition. Coaches and spectators may not enter the spontaneous problem room. Bower said: “This is my 13th year with the program and I have never been invited in the Spontaneous room!”

The five ECS teams have been diligently working on their long-term problems for four months, plus they’ve been preparing for the spontaneous part of the competition – on “Spontaneous Saturdays” – by solving sample problems.

The team that earns first place will go on to the state competition, which is held at SUNY Binghamton every year, and the top two state-level teams go on to the World Finals, which takes place at Iowa State University in May.

Now in her thirteenth year with OM, Bower has led teams to the World Finals in all of the past three years and is looking forward to another year of competition with her students.

In Bower’s words, “Hours upon hours of dedication are required to solve these very complex problems. Seeing the problems evolve and take shape is as exciting for me as it is for the teams.”

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