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Students' creativity tested to the limits

Hillsborough's Odyssey of the Mind competition encourages its young participants to think "outside the box.''

By DAVID PEDREIRA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000


TAMPA -- How do you balance 170 pounds of steel on a 15-gram tower made of balsa wood and glue, with the condition that the tower must compact by at least one inch without breaking?

You stay after school and work at it, said a group of Sligh Middle School students who accomplished the feat at the Odyssey of the Mind competition held Saturday at Tampa Bay Technical High School.

Of course, the team was hoping their tiny, shrinking tower of balsa would hold 700 pounds.

"It looks like the middle just gave out," said eighth-grader Lindsey Adams as she examined a cluster of broken support beams and interlocking braces. "We know that triangles are stronger, so we used them to brace the sides."

Structural engineering may not be part of the normal eighth-grade curriculum, but there is little that is normal about Odyssey of The Mind. Created by a New Jersey college professor in 1970, the academic competition focuses more on innovation than rote book learning.

It has blossomed into an international event for elementary, middle and high school students, who spend long hours after school creating Rube Goldberg devices aimed at beating the quirky scenarios given to them by Odyssey instructors.

Saturday, teams from 15 Hillsborough County schools displayed their work at the Tampa Bay regional competition. Teams that score enough points in their division qualify to compete in the state finals in Orlando in April.

The teams that win in the state competition go on to the world finals in Tennessee.

Stephen Shoe, regional director of Florida Odyssey of the Mind, said the yearly event teaches students lessons that will help them in the real world, such as creativity and teamwork.

"These are all the things that businesses are looking for today in college graduates," Shoe said. "We try to encourage thinking outside of the box."

Schools pay $135 a year to participate in Odyssey of the Mind. Instructional materials for the event are produced by Creative Competitions Inc. in New Jersey, but local nonprofit groups put on the contests.

Michael Simeone and six other fifth-graders from Buckhorn Elementary School performed a skit that featured three separate devices designed to trap a magic cat -- played by team member Courtney Fallen.

Their "traps" employed pulleys, tubes, balloons, nets, marbles, water and a hunk of dry ice that substituted for knockout gas.

"It was fun," Simeone said after his team pulled off the skit. "I like making contraptions."

-- David Pedreira can be reached at (813) 226-3463 or pedreira@sptimes.com.

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