March 21, 2014

Odyssey teams win at regionals, headed to state

The Odyssey of the Mind teams at Desert Junior-Senior High School are working on sets and costumes as they prepare for the state competition, in Brentwood, Calif., April 5.

Edwards Air Force Base schools flexed their academic muscles by winning a regional academic competition and are now on their way to the state Odyssey of the Mind tournament.

Through the efforts of students, teachers, parents and volunteers, the schools on Edwards continue to improve the educational opportunities for their children.

The recent regional Odyssey of the Mind win is a perfect example of what can be accomplished through a dedicated teamed approach.

The three Edwards AFB Odyssey of the Mind teams competed in a regional competition in Hanford, Calif., Feb. 22, and all three of our teams won first place in their divisions. The teams, from Branch Elementary and Desert Junior-Senior High schools, are now preparing for the state competition, in Brentwood, Calif., April 5. If the teams do well, they could move on to the World Finals held in Iowa, where teams from all over the world will compete.

Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Team members apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then bring their solutions to competition on the local, state, and World level. Thousands of teams from throughout the U.S. and from about 25 other countries participate in the program.

According to Susan Weaver, volunteer coach and coordinator for Odyssey of the Mind at DJSHS, the extra-curricular activity is offered in 30 different countries including Germany, South Korea and Poland.

Weaver said there are two facets to the program; a long-term problem that the teams choose at the beginning of the season and perfect over the weeks leading up to the competition and a spontaneous problem that the judges present to the teams at the competition to be creatively solved without preparation.

Every year, Odyssey publishes six long-term problems, five of which are competitive. Weaver described the problems as a vehicle-related problem, a balsa wood structure problem, a technical problem, a performance problem and a classic problem which involves literature, music or classic works of art. Each team selects one of those problems to work on and improve throughout the season.

Items like paint, cardboard and fabric are all considered in the team’s budget. The funds for their budget are supplied by donations from parents and the local community.

Regardless of the problem, each team is required to create a themed skit to demonstrate their solution at the competition. The skits are eight minutes long and the students prepare costumes, set pieces for the production, and a well-rehearsed performance script.

“The problem is completely open ended, it’s completely divergent thinking,” said Weaver. “The more creative, the better.”

One of the Desert teams, coached by Susan Weaver, chose the performance problem – “Seeing is Believing.” In this performance problem, the team has to create a community, which perceives a threat, and send a traveler to go investigate that threat. The traveler then has to send a message back to the community letting them know the threat is benign. The rules for this problem stipulate that the team must build a moving set piece that moves with indirect human power and that they incorporate two original rhymes.

Seventh grader Nathaniel Wolff enjoys the more technical aspects of the problem like building and painting. He especially enjoys designing the costumes for their skit.

“I like shaping things, like an engineer,” said Wolff. He added that they have “grown a lot as a team” since practices started last September.

The other Desert team, coached by Desert Junior-Senior High teacher, Jason Spitzer, chose the balsa wood structure problem which requires the team to creating a weight-bearing structure out of balsa wood that can hold as much weight as possible. The structure must have three components and can weigh no more than 18 grams..

“That’s about the weight of a pack of ketchup and it’s amazing how much weight structures like that can hold if you put your mind to it,” said Weaver. “There are a lot of facets to this, which is why it’s a great opportunity for all different types of thinkers. By the nature of the program, the children who tend to come out for it are highly motivated and they tend to be leaders.”

“I’m really into Math and Science so I really love the structure building,” said seventh grade student, Olivia Warner. “I also really love the spray painting, I think that’s really fun.”

One of the Jr. High-aged teams chose to work on the performance problem, “Seeing is Believing.” At the competition, the team will have to perform a skit incorporating a moving set piece and costumes.

The Branch Elementary team is a group of third-graders, coached by Branch Elementary teacher Michele McCormack. This team chose the technical problem, “The Not-So-Haunted House.” In this problem the team is required to create an original performance with sets, props, costumes and script for a haunted house with four special effects. These special effects, in concept should scare, but through creative solutions instead elicit a different result. The skit must include a character that experiences the special effects, a narrator, and the skit must have a surprise ending.

“It’s about them, they’re not allowed to have outside assistance so no matter what they have to do it and they’ll call you on it if you’re helping them,” said McCormack. “I love that they’re working as a team, they cry, they laugh, they’re happy, they’re sad, it’s all over the place and at the end of the day they make something that they created.”

What impressed Weaver was that the teams sat down and designed everything prior to building their set pieces and designing costumes.

“They drew out a plan for everything, they figured out exactly how everything was going to work and they did that for a few weeks before they really started building,” said Weaver. “I think that made them so much more effective.”

Once they arrive at a competition, the students have to perform their solutions and meet with the judges. Lisa Calvert, grade seven, is a second-year Odyssey student. She believes that the team has improved significantly since last year’s competitions because they incorporated the judges’ suggestions to minimize their equipment and use sturdier props.

In the spontaneous portion of the competition, the teams are given one of three types of problems; a verbal problem, a hands-on problem, or a combination problem that is both verbal and hands on. According to Weaver, a very basic example of a spontaneous problem might be to hand the team a wooden spoon and ask them to name different uses for the utensil. Or maybe they are asked to build a structure out of a deck of cards. They are generally given one minute to think and then four minutes to respond to the spontaneous problem.

“It’s where the judge can see they really are doing this on their own. A chance to show, on the spot, how creative they are,” said Weaver.

One thing that sets the Odyssey teams apart from other extra-curricular activities is that they are “entirely team-driven.” In fact, the team can be penalized if an idea comes from anyone outside of the team.

“Coaches can help them understand the rules, help them use tools, make sure they’re being safe. But every part of the solution has to be their own work,” said Weaver.

Another big part of the competition is learning to operate within a budget. Team coaches teach their teams the basics of budgeting and the team is responsible for staying within their budget. The actual funds used by the Odyssey teams are supplied by donations from parents and the local community.

Each problem is assigned a specific amount to be included in their budget, which accounts only for those items used on the competition floor. If the team exceeds their budget, they will receive penalty points on the day of the competition.

“[The robotics teams] are catering more to the analytical, technical, scientific way of thinking and this is definitely more the creative, artistic, less-structured project solution,” said Weaver.

“Kids are naturally creative and if you give them the opportunity to be creative, think on their own terms without having direction, they have amazing ideas and [Odyssey] gives them the chance to showcase that.”

“The Odyssey teams from Edwards AFB have clearly shown that with a dedicated group of teachers, parents and students we can make a difference in the development of our students and they can achieve great success. Good luck Odyssey teams at the state competition,” said Col. Robert Hoff, 412th Mission Support Group commander.

Calvert summed it up like this, “Odyssey is an adventure. It’s an emotional roller coaster; at times we’re at a loss and at other times there’s a rush of creativity.”

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