Everyone's a winner in Odyssey of the Mind

Odyssey of the Mind is a team activity that challenges kids to "think outside the box". Students compete annually on a regional, statewide and international level to see who will be the OM champion.

Participant's range in age from first grade to college with each team required to solve a problem and then create a presentation, which demonstrates the solution. Unlike other "team sports" where the coach demonstrates and the kids then follow their example, the team members work through the problem toward a solution independently, with minimal adult guidance.

Even on the day of competition, the teams set-up their own props and complete their presentation without adult assistance or direction (that's not to say there aren't many adults sitting on their hands on the sidelines biting their tongues and holding their breath).

Teams also compete in a spontaneous category where they are given materials such as rubber bands, paper clips and straws and then create as many structures as possible in two minutes. Teams are judged on their technical skill, creativity and originality in both the spontaneous and planned presentation categories.

The Odyssey of the Mind teams from Orange were honored recently by the Board of Selectmen at its monthly meeting. First Selectman Mitch Goldblatt declared it "Odyssey of the Mind" Day and presented each student with a certificate in recognition of their outstanding achievement.

Connecticut has 1500 students from 40 towns who compete to see who will be state champion in each age group and attend the "Worlds" where they compete against teams from 35 countries and 50 states. Orange has participated in the Odyssey program for many years but the program has grown dramatically over the past eight years with 11 teams and over 66 students who work after school and on weekends over a six month period to solve their problem and build their solutions.

Unlike other team sports there are no tryouts or auditions, only a desire to be creative and a willingness to contribute a talent, technical, musical, or artistic.

Many of the teams have been together for over five years, with several teams winning the regional competitions this year. One team won the state championship in their division two years in a row and then went on to represent Connecticut at the world competition.

I had the opportunity to see the Odyssey process up close when my son joined a team this year. They met in the basement of one the member's home every Sunday night for three months first choosing which area to compete in then working out their solution. In the beginning they seemed to do more talking than problem solving, but gradually they focused their energies, first interpreting the question, then building three contraptions and creating a skit to demonstrate the problem and it's solution. If this sounds a little abstract - it is!

Teams are given very few guidelines, but do have certain requirements they must meet i.e., time limits, size of props and the number of contraptions. The problems have a different "theme" each year. This year's theme was "pesticides" which our team interpreted as "pests aside" defining their pests as the human type such as the telephone solicitor, and door to door salesmen. They built some interesting contraptions to eliminate the pests including a catapult that shot a cream pie when you opened the door, and a barking dog which frightened off the phone solicitor when the answering machine picked up. They wrote and performed a skit using the "Honeymooners" theme, which combined humor and music - they even wrote a song to demonstrate the solution.

Throughout the three months, I watched these boys go from horsing around when they met to learning to think and work as a team and focus on a solution, especially the last two weeks when they met almost nightly to perfect their presentation. No one was prouder than they were of themselves after their performance at Coginchaug Regional High School. Their satisfaction in knowing they created and carried out the project on their own was what motivated them and the first words out of their mouths were - we're doing it again next year right?

Although winning a ribbon is very rewarding, the true reward these kids earn is knowing that they conceived and created something on their own - but not alone.

Odyssey of the Mind teaches kids many skills they will need in their adult life; the ability to define a problem and seek solutions which go beyond the obvious and to work as part of a team- each one contributing their skill or talent to be a part of the solution.

There are four basic tools needed for a successful OM team: creativity, originality, cardboard and duct tape! Orange is fortunate to have young people who meet the first two requirements so admirably and parents who have the patience to watch them develop those skills no matter how painstaking the process might be. Odyssey of the Mind is a great training ground for all the future scientists, teachers, corporate executives, community activists, musicians, etc - this is an "extracurricular activity" that has many applications.

Trish Pearson is a resident of Orange and a member of the board of selectmen