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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/19/11

Coach from Bath, Maine, on Recent World Finals of Odyssey of the Mind

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My guest today is Judi Mansfield of Bath, ME. We met at the world finals of Odyssey of the Mind over Memorial Day Weekend. Welcome to OpEdNews, Judi. What is OotM and what were you doing at the competition? 

Odyssey of the Mind is an international creative problem-solving program for students from kindergarten through college. It was founded 32 years ago by Dr. Sam  Micklus, a university professor in New Jersey. Today, teams from across the United States and throughout the world participate each year.Teams are made up of a maximum of seven students. The k-2 teams only perform at the state/country level rather than competing.

Each team selects one of the five long term problems and works for often five or six months to solve the problem. Each year the problems include: 1) A vehicle problem in which they must build a vehicle that completes required tasks, 2) A technical problem (this year, a Rube Goldberg type of device), 3) a classics problem which includes a skit involving literature, history, art, etc., 4) a balsa problem requiring the construction of a light-weight balsa structure which is judged in part by the weight it holds, and 5) a performance problem on a specific theme. As part of solving the problem, the team must write a script and create scenery, props and costumes. Creative use of materials, often recyclables, is encouraged and helps earn high scores.

At the competitions (regional, state, country and World Finals) the teams also must solve a spontaneous problem, one which they have never seen or been able to practice.

I was at World Finals at College Park, Maryland, over Memorial Day Weekend as the coach of a team of six Morse High School freshman from Bath, Maine. This team took second place at the State Tournament in Maine in March in the high school division of the Classics problem and this qualified them to attend World Finals. This is an exciting opportunity for students, not only to meet other young people from all over the country and the world, but also to see other solutions to problems and expand their horizons. This year, 856 teams came to World Finals and included teams from Singapore, Japan, China, Germany, India, Poland, Togo, Switzerland, and a number of other foreign countries. My team competed in a field of 58 teams and I couldn't have been prouder.

I don't blame you in the slightest. Tell us more, Judi, about your team and the problem they chose and the challenges they faced in tackling it.

The problem my team chose was called "Le Tour Guide." They had to select a book character from a list given in the problem brochure and then portray that character as a tour guide. They were required to visit two places on earth and also one fictional place on earth. My team chose Peter Pan and they visited London, The Netherlands (by mistake, because Peter thought he was taking them to Neverland), and also Trash Island where they could acquire more fairy dust to enable them to fly. The tourists were all story book characters--Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, Tinker Bell, and Tarzan's Jane. They were required to have a guard who was guarding something that turned out not to be valuable and they chose The Beast who was guarding his lunch. They were also required to have an inanimate object that comes alive (Big Ben started to talk) and to use an item of trash in some way.

One of their biggest challenges was their scenery which was a 6'x4' book with three pages and a cover, all made from cardboard and reinforced with some wood. They had to cover the cardboard pages with oaktag and paper because painting the scenes on large sheets of cardboard usually causes them to warp. They must have worked six weeks on this scenery. Then we had to transport it to Maryland. It was too large to ship, at least with our meager travel budget, so my husband drove it, the rest of our props, and the scenery/props for another Maine team in his pickup.

They began meeting once a week after school in November and by February were coming on Sunday afternoons also. The last week before the State Tournament on March 26, they came every day. After States, they decided to improve everything, the book, the costumes, the script, so they met once or twice a week until we came to Maryland.

A big challenge was, and still is, funding the trip to Maryland. Our school department pays for expenses relating to the Maine Tournament including busing the teams about 70 miles, renting a truck for scenery, paying membership and tournament fees, and even providing us with a room in which to work. Bath had 12 teams in 2011 and two qualified for World Finals. It cost my team almost $6000 for room and board, transportation (we took a chartered bus with five other teams from southern Maine) and scenery shipping. The students are halfway there paying for it. Lots of car washes, etc. are in their future.

You've been involved with Odyssey of the Mind for a long time, Judi, in a number of capacities. Can you tell us how you got interested in the first place?

I've been involved with Odyssey for 13 years. I was, at that time, an elementary teacher and also gifted and talented coordinator for the school district. The GT teacher had heard about the program and talked me into co-coaching a team with her that year. We were both so impressed that we continued the next year and have become very active in the State Odyssey organization, Maine Adventures in Creativity. She is presently the Co-Association Director for Maine and I am the Maine State Tournament Director. We both usually coach multiple teams each year. This year, she coached a primary and an elementary team and I coached my granddaughter's elementary team in the nearby town of Wiscasset as well as my high school team in Bath.

I haven't mentioned much about the spontaneous portion of the competition but it is an important component. Teams can earn up to 200 points for their long term performance, 50 more for style ("the icing on the cake") and another 100 for spontaneous. Those 100 points can easily tip the scale.

At competition, the team is presented with a problem they have never seen nor had time to prepare for. There are three types: Verbal, Verbal-Hands on, and Hands-on. Examples of verbal problems might be to name things that are red or to tell a story, adding on a sentence at a time. The team members go in sequence and are scored higher on creative responses. For example, when naming things that are red, a common (one point) answer might be an apple, while a creative (three point) answer might be "a book" using the homophone "read'. 
For verbal-hands on, the team might be presented with an item such as a piece of string and asked to tell how it can be used or what it reminds them of. Again they are scored higher for creative answers. Hands-on problems usually require constructing something. For example, they might be given some spaghetti and clay and asked to build the highest tower they can in a limited amount of time or a structure that will hold the most weight.

That must be nerve-wracking! Judi, explain please the role of the unconventional coach for Odyssey of the Mind. And how are they able to keep parents from getting involved in the problem-solving process?  Parents are notorious for injecting themselves into Little League and other competitions.

All problem solving is done completely by the students. Coaches, and parents, are not allowed to help in any way other than keeping the teams on track. They are allowed to run errands if the students give them a shopping list. They can also set up training; for example, if the team wants to learn how to use power tools, the coach can find a carpenter who will give them training. Coaches must explain right up front to the parents that this is not like the homework where they might even be encouraged to help. 
What happens in most cases is that the students will happily remind an adult if they are offering "outside assistance." The team members must sign an outside assistance form before competition and if they have received any help, they must admit it up front. This would give them a small penalty but a larger one would be assessed if the judges determine that they did indeed have outside assistance. The judges always chat with the teams after they perform and might ask, "Who made that darling costume?" Occasionally a student will blurt out, "My grandma." Oops. Outside assistance.

on stage at 2011 world finals

You mentioned that you're coaching your granddaughter's elementary school team. What's that been like?

That's been a lot of fun. My granddaughter has been exposed to Odyssey since she was an infant, going to team practices with me when I did her day care. Then, one spring at a practice, I noticed she was making some kind of list. When asked, she explained that it was the list of kids for her Odyssey team the next year. I was hooked. This was her second year, her first competing since the first year they were in the primary division. They didn't win but they have already told me that they will be doing Odyssey again next year.

Fun! What else would you like to talk about, Judi, before we bring this to a close?

Just thank you for listening. You are a pro at asking the right questions!

Music to my ears. It sounds like you've been a great teacher and coach over the years;  your students have been lucky to have you. Good luck to past and future OMers from Bath, Maine! It's been a pleasure talking with you, Judi.

Odyssey of the Mind website
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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