No limit to creativity at Odyssey of the Mind state finals

cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.comApril 5, 2014 

— Hundreds of Charlotte-area students – wearing everything from homemade televisions to wigs made of Mountain Dew bottle caps – converged on Wingate University on Saturday for the North Carolina Odyssey of the Mind state finals.

An international educational program, Odyssey of the Mind provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Schools and communities choose teams in the fall and select from five problems to solve.

Challenges this year ranged from creating a vehicle and a skit that incorporated a driver’s test and talking GPS, to building a lightweight structure from grams of balsa wood and glue that could support stacked weights.

“There’s no limit to creativity,” said Bryson Gordon, a third-grader at Sharon Elementary.

Teams work on their solutions throughout the year and present them in spring competitions.

More than three dozen teams from Charlotte-area schools – elementary, middle and high school – competed in the finals on Saturday after advancing from the regional competition March 8.

The founder of Odyssey of the Mind, Dr. Sam Micklus, 79, spent the day watching the North Carolina teams compete. He gave the first challenge 36 years ago at Rowan University in New Jersey.

It was 1978 and Micklus’ technology students were galvanized by the anti-war movements but uninspired in their work in his technology class.

His solution: Give students three weeks to develop flotation devices that could hold their body weight and travel a course on a lake – without the assistance of a gasoline-powered engine. Their budget was $5, and scrounging was encouraged.

But when given what seemed like an impossible problem, their creativity kicked in, developing flotation devices such as a hamster wheel of sorts and a three-legged contraption that looked like a water bug.

The challenges became a staple in Micklus’ curriculum, and eventually he launched a competition among 28 New Jersey schools.

Now about 40 states have Odyssey of the Mind programs, and it has spread to more than 20 countries, from Cuba to South Africa, Germany to Russia.

In China, there are even 69 Odyssey of the Mind schools, Micklus said, which follow a curriculum that encourages creativity and problem-solving, involving daily spontaneous tasks.

“To a lot of people, problems are what you want to get rid of,” Micklus said. “These kids are developing an affinity for problems.”

Winners in the state competition will advance to the world finals May 28-31 at Iowa State University. Although winners weren’t known as of press time, visit www.ncom.org to see the full list.

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan

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