Children match wits, brain power

Student teams culminate months of work in the Odyssey of the Mind regional competition.

Published February 19, 2007

The tasks sound daunting:

Find a way to get around the world in eight minutes on a $125 budget or build a balsawood structure that can support 700 pounds.

Several hundred students from Pasco and Hernando counties spent Saturday showing just how they solved such perplexing problems at the annual regional Odyssey of the Mind Competition at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey.

Odyssey of the Mind, or OM, is a challenging competition that forces student teams to work together to tackle complex assignments under different categories and with different requirements.

Teams must come up with innovative solutions under no small amount of pressure.

Work begins early in the school year, when students sign up as seven-person teams, in elementary, middle and high school divisions. They are given specifications of a situation, or problem, and they must create an eight-minute resolution presentation, using materials that cost no more than $125.

No adult is permitted to help or advise or even speak to the kids directly about their projects, according to Odyssey Gulf Coast director Freda Abercrombie.

An adult coach may teach a needed skill to the students, but not in conjunction with the project.

"If the team needs to know how to solder, the coach can show them how to solder, but not how to solder their project," Abercrombie said.

Kathy Lugo, coach for PAGES (Partners Allied for Gifted Education and Support) of Hernando County, said OM is a contest unlike many others.

"Unless you see the competition, it's hard to envision," she said. "You're used to seeing sport competitions and this is entirely different. It's a brain competition - a creativity competition."

The Pasco Hernando region, Florida's largest in this international program, fields 112 teams - about seven students each, plus coaches.

About 1,000 people roamed the River Ridge campus all day Saturday, watching student presentations. On the surface, it looked like fun, but OM can be a little stressful. Still, it teaches important lessons.

Kyra Leonard, coaching Hernando's Challenger K-8 team, said it lets kids learn they need to work together. "They have to think completely outside the box, learn to cooperate."

Coaches agree that once students get over the initial, 'hey coach, what do we do now?' phase, they latch onto doing tasks their way, negotiating operating rules, seeking out materials and learning new skills.

Seven Springs Middle School's team, for instance, created mechanical rats, synthetic cheese for the rats, and a story-line explaining how the team and rats interacted to face their problem.

Teams were scored by a panel of judges with a complicated point system. Points are awarded for creativity and performance, deducted for things like outside help, running over time or not meeting criteria.

Additional points are awarded for style and pizzazz.

The results of Saturday's contest will send about 45 teams on to the state competition at the University of Central Florida in April.

Those teams may elect to keep the same presentation, or scrap it and begin a new one.

Said OM coordinator Abercrombie: "Once you see what these kids are capable of, you don't worry about the future of the world anymore. You just don't. It's in good hands."

Fast Facts:

Odyssey of the Mind teams

The following school teams are going to the state Odyssey of the Mind competition in the following categories:

Cypress Elementary, Sand Pine Elementary, Calusa Elementary, Seven Springs Middle Team A

Lake Myrtle Elementary, Bishop Larkin Catholic, Longleaf Elementary, Deer Park Elementary, Pine View Middle Team A, Wesley Chapel High, Land O'Lakes High

Marlowe Elementary, Deer Park Elementary, Lake Myrtle Elementary, Bishop Larkin Catholic, River Ridge Middle School Team B, Pine View Middle Team B, Mitchell High, Land O'Lakes High, River Ridge High, PAGES of Hernando Team B, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic

Sand Pine Elementary, Locke Elementary, Wesley Chapel Elementary, Quail Hollow Elementary, Sanders Memorial Elementary, John Long Middle Team B, River Ridge Middle Team A, John Long Middle Team A, Land O'Lakes High, Mitchell High, Gulf High

Locke Elementary, Fox Hollow Elementary, Lake Myrtle Elementary, Longleaf Elementary, Weightman Middle, River Ridge Middle Team A, Seven Springs Middle Team A, Land O'Lakes High, Mitchell High, Ridgewood High

Bishop Larkin Catholic, San Antonio Elementary