The trickiest part of Odyssey of the Mind is explaining to others what it is.
“It’s a creative, team, problem-solving competition where you build things or do skits, or both,” is a common attempt.
“Huh?” is a common response.
Actually, that’s a pretty good description. The far-reaching goal, however, is to teach out-of-the-box thinking in a world where correct answers (and sports) are more often nurtured.
“Face it. In life, there is no right answer,” says longtime volunteer coach Pam Hepola. “The No. 1 thing is they become problem solvers. They don’t even think about waiting for someone else to solve the problem. And No. 2, they learn how to work as a team.”
In Odyssey of the Mind, teams of 5-7 students work together throughout the school year to solve crazy problems that the fiends at the international office dream up.
One of Hepola’s seventh-grade teams won the coveted “Ranatra Fusca” award for exceptional creativity. (The award’s name comes from the water-strider insect that inspired one early Odyssey participant to try to walk across a pond standing on floats.)
Part of the team’s challenge was to make a vehicle, with no remote control, that moved through a zone and picked up a “tag.” This team’s tag went through a Rube Goldberg-type structure that delivered it at the exact moment the vehicle stopped.
The vehicle’s timing device was inspired by the way a music box slowly rotates and, true to Odyssey tradition, was made out of recycled items, including Pringles tops.
Not everybody has to be an engineering whiz, though. Some excel at script writing or acting. A good many are academically strong, but other strengths are considered equally useful. In Odyssey, scattered kids focus on tedious tasks, leaders have to build consensus, and shy kids must risk looking foolish.
One quiet boy on last year’s Pin Oak Middle School team, who normally picks his public wardrobe with care, donned the dress and fluffy wig of Gramma Nut in a Candy Land-themed skit. The team made it to World Finals and is giving it another go this year.
At school, there are social pressures to act a certain way. But within the protected confines of Odyssey, from elementary school (the majority of teams) through college (the fewest), “OMers” are encouraged to be kids, in the best sense, by dreaming big and applying geeky enthusiasm.
In the spring, they enter a Regional competition and, if they qualify, move on to State and possibly Worlds, held at a college campus in late May. Last year’s was in Michigan, and this year’s will be in Maryland. At Worlds, more than 800 teams compete, and collecting trading pins from international teams is a big sport.
“When we found out that we were going to Michigan, I started crying. We were all really happy,” said 10-year-old Emma Strommen of River Oaks Elementary. “What we did was build structures and test them by seeing how many weights they could hold.”
Competitions also include a “Spontaneous” division, in which teams go into a room with no idea of what they may be asked to do. Ben Ostdiek, a Lamar High School senior and Odyssey veteran, volunteers as a coach for third graders at Horn Academy.
He explains that team members might be asked to, for example, name types of trees. They get fewer points for common answers like “oak” and more for creative answers like “poetry” (“po-e-tree”). Or, he said, they may be given index cards and clay and be asked to build a tall tower or a structure that can hold a golf ball.
Odyssey was started in the late ‘70s by industrial-design professor Sam “Dr. Sam” Micklus. In Houston, about 140 teams take part.
The process takes a huge number of adult volunteers. There would be more teams if there were more coaches. Hepola, who coaches an unheard-of four teams at a time, including her son’s at Memorial High School, reassures parents that, while the time commitment is significant, they don’t have to solve the problem themselves.
Unlike school plays or sports teams run by adults, Odyssey is strict about its no-adult-help policy. At the Regionals tournament this spring, one parent told on another who broke the rules by applying face paint. Another team desperately needed tape, but the coach was careful not to let an adult drive to buy some until a student specifically requested it. That team ended up winning.