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Skit jump-starts minds, earns students first place

The Tampa Palms Elementary team won at Odyssey of the Mind for their idiomatic play. They go to the world finals next month.

By SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


TAMPA PALMS -- For some students at Tampa Palms Elementary School, competing for first place means flexing brain muscles, tapping creative juices and having fun.

Seven fourth-graders from the New Tampa school won in their age group at the state Odyssey of the Mind competition recently in Orlando. They head to the world finals next month in Maryland.

The victory came as a big surprise to the new team and marked the culmination of nearly 250 hours of hard work. Their hearts raced for five days afterward, said team member Carly Earnest, 10.

Tampa Palms' team is among hundreds taking part in the international competition for elementary, middle and high school students. Each group has a problem and must present a solution during an eight-minute skit.

The all-girls group from Tampa Palms had to create a funny play that incorporated the use of idioms, cultural expressions that aren't meant to be taken literally. Their skit centered on a farming family and their animals, who "looked for a needle in a haystack," spoke "straight from the horse's mouth" and "kicked the bucket."

The 9- and 10-year-olds designed their own costumes, wrote the script and created their own lyrics. Coaches Kim Pietsch and Susan Nelson offered guidance and asked questions but couldn't tell them what to do. The young performers said it was an experience they won't soon forget.

"I learned I can do things without others helping me," said Emilee Smith, 10. She also learned how to act like an "udderly" humorous cow.

Odyssey of the Mind was created by a New Jersey professor in the 1970s to test students' teamwork and thinking ability. Unlike sports or other physical competitions, the children are rewarded for their intellect.

"They think of other ways to solve problems," said Elaine Knuckles, a second-grade teacher at Tampa Palms who has been coaching teams for seven years. "I've seen these kids blossom and come out of their shells and become risk-takers."

Knuckles has been a driving force behind Odyssey of the Mind teams at Tampa Palms and Benito Middle School. Her fifth-grade team from Tampa Palms won the state competition last year and placed seventh at the world finals. Her Benito team came in third at the regional competition in March.

"When you go to world (finals) once, it's lightning striking, but when you have two teams in different divisions going back to back, that's true excellence," said Kathy Mueller, PTA president at Tampa Palms. A fifth-grade team from the school placed second in the regional competition and sixth at the state level.

Knuckles said the school's success stems from the community's commitment to the arts, from the principal to the parents. Attending the competitions is a thrill for both the students and coaches, who stay in hotels or in college dorms.

"It's like going to the Olympics," she said. "The kids are in awe."

Over the years, Tampa Palms' teams have earned a reputation as formidable opponents. The room was packed when they took to the stage at the state competition.

"I heard "Tampa Palms is the team to beat,' " Knuckles said. "I felt really proud."

Organizers are constantly looking for people to coach teams. Coaching takes patience, perseverance and a lot of time. Tampa Palms' winning team started meeting in November and spent several hours each weekend developing their skit.

It was worth it. In fact, supporters said it is the best thing a parent can do for their child.

"I think they gain self-worth and self-confidence," said Pietsch, a fourth-grader teacher at Tampa Palms whose daughter, Emily, was on the team.

The team is selling candy, cookies and donuts to raise $7,000 for the trip to the world finals June 2-5 at the University of Maryland in College Park. "I think they have a great chance of doing well at world, but it's been the experience of going through this together," Pietsch said. "Just getting there is a lot."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463.

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