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Odyssey an effort in lofty thinking

Two student teams will compete this week in what is often called the world's grandest academic competition.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
From left, Chris Hisamoto, Meghann Pabst, Andrew Kimpland, Mindy Kimpland, Laura Hayes and Chris Pabst are one of two Pasco County student teams in the Odyssey of the Mind competition.

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002

Their journeys began months ago, in the garages and living rooms of their coaches and friends. It will end this week in Colorado, when two teams from Pasco County compete in what's billed as the grandest academic competition in the world.

It's called Odyssey of the Mind, and for the fifth straight year kids from Pasco will be there vying for the gold.

Pasco's delegation consists of two teams, both representing Land O'Lakes High School. Both teams, however, are composed of kids from several schools who have been perfecting their tournament entries for months.

One team, consisting of two kids from Land O'Lakes and four from Seven Springs Middle School, has been building small balsa wood towers that can withstand hundreds of pounds of weight.

The other team is made up of four students from Land O'Lakes and two from Pine View Middle School. They've spent months building a small battery-powered car that changes shape as it travels. Their production also includes a skit and an original song.

Odyssey of the Mind has been described as a quirky cross between a science fair, a masquerade party and the Olympics. It's not a competition that rewards the quick recall of trivia. Instead, it stresses teamwork and creative problem solving.

Each fall students are given a list of problems they can tackle. Teams spend months trying to figure out creative, solutions to the problems, without spending more than $135.

The local teams have competed in, and won, district and state tournaments where judges rated their projects for creativity, style and how well they actually work. Teams also compete in a spontaneous problem-solving contest, where they're given only a few minutes to overcome a brain-twisting challenge.

This week, 690 teams from the United States and 20 other countries will meet at the University of Colorado-Boulder for the Odyssey of the Mind world championship.

Russell McCloud, 15, is the brains behind the team constructing the balsa wood towers. The 15-gram, 8-inch tower he built for last month's state competition withstood 425 pounds. That's not too bad, he said, but the towers at the world finals typically hold more than 1,000 pounds.

"I've looked at bridges and trusses and diagonal supports," said the Land O'Lakes 10th-grader. "After building about a thousand of these things, I figured out that cross braces work the best."

He also discovered that if he baked the towers in his mom's oven, he could dry out the wood even more. That meant he could add a few more support pieces without going over the contest's weight limit for the towers.

While Russell has been primarily in charge of designing and building the towers, his teammates have written and choreographed a skit that spoofs the legend of Pandora's Box.

The team's other members are Mitchell Foster, 14; Erin Cantwell, 14; Alison Foster, 16; Lindsey Jameson, 13; and Amethyst Auza, 14.

"We've had our ups and downs, but we've stuck together," said team coach Sue Foster, who is making her third trip to the world tournament. "You have to go and do your best and then hope for the best."

Foster should know. Her team of elementary students won the world competition last year for their age group. The team is also coached by Jennifer McCloud, Russell's mom.

The county's other team prefers to solve mechanical problems and has built several small working cars. A few of the team's members competed in the world tournament several years ago as middle school students, when they built a three-wheeled car powered by bicycle sprocket and bungee cords.

This year's car is a bit more complex. Part of the competition's requirement is that the car change its shape and transform into something else. Powered by an old wheelchair motor, the vehicle's body morphs from giant pig into a pink flamingo and finally into a hotdog.

Team members said the guys took care of building the machine while the girls concentrated on its exterior and a skit about a hillbilly barbecue that accompanies their entry.

"When you combine them, it tends to work best," said Meghann Pabst, 14.

The other team members are Mindy Kimpland, 16; Laura Hayes, 14; Andrew Kimpland, 14; Chris Hisamoto, 14; and Chris Pabst, 17.

Some of the teammates have been on Odyssey of the Mind teams together since elementary school. That's made coach Lynn Pabst's job a lot easier.

"They have a lot of natural leadership, so they've been able to pull it off," said Pabst, who is Chris' mom.

The two teams were scheduled to compete Thursday and Friday, with winners announced at the competition's closing ceremonies on Saturday. Although the teams are composed of kids from multiple schools, they both chose to represent Land O'Lakes High because their oldest, most experienced team members all attend that school's International Baccalaureate program.

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