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It's All Fun and Games For These Problem Solvers

Creativity, teamwork prized in 'Odyssey of the Mind' for students

A little before 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a resounding cheer goes up from the 680-plus kids packed into the Concord-Carlisle High School auditorium here. "Let the Games begin!" the moderator cries.

For the next eight hours, 98 teams of kindergarten through 12th-graders from schools representing 15 towns act out the parts of various characters to tackle problems in categories such as "Amusin' Cruisin'," "Better Safe Than Sorry," and "Crunch!"

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It's all part of an international creative problem-solving competition called Odyssey of the Mind, OM for short.

Teams have eight minutes to present their skits. First up is Team A from Chelmsford High School with a presentation they call "The Doors of Perception." Costumes, makeup, a set of three hinged flats painted to resemble a brick-faced club, and plenty of humor highlight the Rube Goldberg system of wires, pulleys, motor, photosensor, and magnets that would allow disabled people to open a door without using their hands.

Team members dressed up as a "cool" cat and a "cool" dog demonstrate the "OMvention."

After the performance, judges scurry over to quiz the inventors about how they came up with their solution, and the teens are eager to explain. "Doors of Perception" won a first-place prize.

Months of preparation, trial and error, and rehearsal have culminated in this OM regional tournament outside Boston in which teams are competing to advance to the state finals this Saturday. Similar scenes are repeated in 49 states and a dozen foreign countries leading up to the World Finals in Iowa in May.

Odyssey of the Mind, a non-profit organization, grew out of an industrial-design course taught by Samuel Micklus at Glassboro State College (now Rowan College) in New Jersey. "College students," Dr. Micklus says, "were so used to giving teachers what they wanted or what they thought they wanted, that they were reluctant to do anything other than what was the obvious solution to the problem." He also came upon a study that claimed teachers preferred less-creative students.

In 1978 he invited New Jersey middle- and high school students to a creative competition. What was to be a one-time event with 28 schools now includes more than a million children. Schools form teams of five to seven students, divided by age. A separate division takes in students from colleges and other institutions.

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Every year, Micklus and his son Sam devise five long-term problems. Each school can enter one team per division for each problem. Some of the problems, such as "OMvention," have a technical bent, while others are more performance oriented. All involve creative thinking and teamwork.

Style, the costumes, songs, and sets, are important in OM competitions. Style presentations are a creative way of selling the design, the solution, to the public, Micklus says. It also allows kids with different skills, such as writing and drawing, to take part.

Back in the library, Laura Kampas, the "cool cat" of the Chelmsford High team, says the most challenging thing about Odyssey of the Mind is not just solving the problem, but learning to work with others and accepting their ideas. "It should help us a lot in life just learning to deal with different kinds of people," she says.

It's as much fun for the adults, who volunteer as judges and coaches. Barbara Mann, Massachusetts OM coordinator, coaches three teams at Triton Regional High School in Byfield, Mass., where she teaches. She says the hardest part about coaching is sitting on your hands, taping your mouth, and letting the kids learn by trial and error. "I used to stay up nights trying to solve the kids' problems in my head. And then ... when I finally thought of a way to do it, I couldn't tell 'em. It was the worst possible thing."

By midmorning, a standing-room-only crowd has squeezed in to watch the "Crunch!" demonstration. The problem: Design and build a structure made of balsa wood and glue that will bear as much weight as possible, while being hit by billiard balls. As the balls roll down a ramp to strike the structure every so often, team member Tim Churella carefully lowers barbell weights onto a wooden square that the structure supports.

After eight minutes, the tiny tower holds up under 442.5 pounds. The audience cheers. Later, more weights are piled on for fun, until the structure finally "crunches" at 530 pounds. That is a record today for Division I, ages 12 and under.

Such fun has some real-world benefits, says Bill Jones, a volunteer chairman of Friends of OM, who helps raise money and introduces the program to foreign countries. "The kids learn how to work as a member of a team," Jones says. They "learn to communicate ideas, by whatever means - verbal, demonstration, or by sound. [They] learn to use humor, and put all this together in an effective package, in a short ... time, and do it with fun."

High school junior John Gates agrees: "It's fun just to put all these things together, and they come out to do something amazing," he says. "It's a great feeling to create that."

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