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Dr. Sam Miklus, Mastermind Behind Odyssey of the Mind

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My guest today is Dr Sam Micklus, founder and mastermind behind Odyssey of the Mind. Welcome to OpEdNews, Sam. The world finals took place over Memorial Day Weekend at the University of Maryland. Can you tell us a little about the competition and who came to College Park? 

Dr. Sam at World Finals; photo credit: Carol DeSimone

Well, we had the biggest competition we've ever had. We had 856 teams compete. I believe there were 16 countries, probably I'd say there were 40 states or so, maybe a little more. It was a huge event, to say the least. We had three new countries this year: Switzerland, India and Togo in West Africa, so that was exciting for everyone.

What are we talking, numbers-wise? How many people showed up for this event?

That's hard to say. We have up to seven kids on a team. You multiply that by 876. And then, say, one or two coaches per team, that's another 1400 coaches. We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 425 officials and then there are spectators and parents and school officials and what have you. South Korea, Singapore and Poland each brought about 300 people. So, there were a lot of people.

There are plenty of people who have no idea what Odyssey of the Mind is. They have no clue what we're talking about. Can you back up a bit and start us with the fundamentals?

Sure. Basically, it's like a sport. The only difference is that it's creative problem solving sport. The kids, and I say kids, when you're my age, just about everybody's a kid!  We have seven [I'll say people and not kids] on a team and you'll see why. We start with kindergarten and division 1 goes roughly from kindergarten through 5th grade. The next division is essentially middle schools. The next division is the high school division. And then we have Division 4 which was college and now it's including senior citizens and that has been a fantastic thing.

Tell me all about it.

I will. About three years ago, this friend of mine, Fern Brown, she's the state director for Maine and her husband is a retired secret service guy. And he went to a seniors meeting place and he walked in and said, "Who wants to be on an Odyssey of the Mind team?" Well, they didn't know what it was. So he said, "Come on. Let's get some volunteers." So, he got seven people. I think the oldest one was 84 and the youngest was 68. That was the range.

A youngster!

So he said, "Okay, now you're going to compete in the college division. So I want all of you to take a college course at York Country Community College to make it legitimate." They enrolled and it didn't matter what course they were in, as long as they were in a course.

Let me explain the problem they were in. It was humor. Humor is a very important thing to creative people. There was a problem, Laughathon.They had to make a humorous skit and there were certain elements that had to take place. One of them was: something had to happen faster than normal. There was another time when someone was looking in a mirror and another person was in the mirror and they were the reflection. And then, maybe, when the person turned away, the reflection made a face at them. Whatever it was, it had to be humorous. Anyway, this team picked that problem. At one of the practices, Fern said to one lady, "What are you doing?" And she said, "I'm reading my notes." And she said, "You have to memorize all this stuff." She said, "Memorize?!"

Anyway, they made a skit. Division 4 can go right to the World Finals. So, I walked into the room where this was going to take place. I was directing traffic and I got little kids and put them down in the front row. And we had people in the aisles. I don't know how many people that auditorium sat, maybe 700-800. And it was packed. We had to turn 400 or 500 people away. And I said, "This could be the worst Odyssey of the Mind team in the history of the program and they're going to get a standing ovation when they walk in." And sure enough, here were little kids, these people were like their great grandparents and they're working on the same problems that they worked on. And when they walked in, you can't imagine the ovation they got. In addition to that, when it started, they were genuinely funny. They won the gold trophy in that division.

They did?! Cool!

They did!  When I talked with them at our party afterward, one lady said, "This is the most fun I ever had in my life." And the next day when they were at the airport, when they were leaving, their gate was at the end of the corridor. And when they were walking down, carrying their trophy, all the kids that were in there wanted their autograph, they wanted their picture taken; it was spectacular. We've had a few more senior teams since then and that's something I'd like to try to work on, to develop a little bit more.


It was really, really great. This was a short story long.

I think our readers need a bit more background because they don't really see what Odyssey of the Mind is.

There are three segments to the competition. There's the solution to the long-term problem. There are five different long-term problems every year for the four different divisions. The problems fall into categories. The first one is a vehicle problem. Build the vehicle, drive it and do all the things that are required. Every other year, we have a small vehicle [problem] - this year it was a small vehicle, powered by mousetraps. The second problem is the technical problem - this year, Rube Goldberg-type inventions. Over the past, they've had to make dinosaurs that had to move and do certain things, they had to shoot mechanical balls into baskets and that's an invention thing. The third category is classics.

And let me just go off on another tangent for a minute. It took me three years to write my first classics problem. Not that I sat down for three years and tried to do it. It took three years to do because you know the classics are falling through the cracks in our education system. Here are some works that have survived for thousands of years and now, all of a sudden, we don't pay any attention to them.  I always liked Greek mythology or at least since I was in graduate school. So I wrote a problem and I called it the Iliad . But it just wasn't right. So then I looked at the Odyssey [which] had neat little self-contained stories. So I changed it and I called it Humor from Homer.  They had to pick one of the episodes from the Odyssey and make it into a humorous performance. So, at least it got the kids reading the Odyssey .

The fourth problem is a structure. They build a balsa wood structure. It has different little twists to it every year. Then, they put weights on it until the structure breaks. Let me just put this in perspective to your readers. They take roughly ten strips of 1/8"x1/8"x36" balsa wood. That's model airplane wood; it's very, very light. And they make a structure to our specifications that is about 8" high. It has to weigh a certain amount of grams maximum, 18 usually. And 18 grams is a little more than - an ounce. It's like maybe 10 paper clips, 5 pennies, 7 pennies, something like that.  They build the structure and then it has to have a two-inch space right up through the middle. They put that over a safety plate and then the structure has to balance weights that we put on an 18" square pressure board. And we put barbells on it until it breaks. I ask people how much they think it can hold - 100 pounds? 200 pounds? 500 pounds? To give you an idea of how good these teams are, last year, we had 29 teams that held over 1,000 pounds with that half-ounce of wood.

I didn't know anything about Odyssey of the Mind before I happened upon the world finals in May. I spent a lot of time at the unhinged structure competition because I couldn't get over what was being accomplished with those teeny, tiny strips of balsa.

These people say how poor our kids do and how dumb they are. I'd like to have them follow me around a little bit. And then I'd like to have some of these talk shows let them get their engineering staff to build structures and compete with these kids. They wouldn't stand a prayer.

Then there's a performance problem. That's the fifth category. A perfect score for the long term problem would be 200 points.

This must be so much fun for you!

Yeah, it is. Because I don't have to go through all the day-to-day stuff. I just come in at the end and watch. The classics have been great problems over the years. We did one with King Arthur, one with Pompei, Ancient Egypt. And I learn quite a bit when I write the problem; I do some research and all. It's just a fun thing to do. These are what we call long-term problems.

Another of the three scoring categories is the spontaneous problem. They go into a room; no one is allowed in, just the team. No coaches, no spectators. And we give them a problem and they have anywhere from three-eight minutes to solve their problem. There's a whole scoring category for each problem. And that's where these things are won and lost. Some problems are verbal, but at the world finals, we can't really use that. For example, an old verbal problem: Name different kinds of water. Now, we can do this at a regional competition, maybe even state and then there may be open-ended, unlimited number of responses in a three-minute period. Or they may be limited to 40 responses to the team. And people would say, lake or river, or pond, stream or ocean. They may be the common responses. They would get one point answers. More unusual answers might be: ice


or moisture, things that aren't really looked at as fluid but it's water. Waterpik, or they use water in a term for something else: water skis or use water with another word, they'd get more credit for that. For the world finals, most of the things are hands-on.

Because of the language problem?

That's right. You can't use innuendo with the Chinese. How would you like to pick up a question with Chinese innuendo if you were an American? So, we try to make it as fair as we can for everybody. A perfect score in spontaneous would be 100 points. Then, there's what we call style, which is part of the skit, trying to get the audience to applaud for them, and that kind of thing. That's worth 50 points.

So, a perfect score would be 350 points. Usually, the highest score may be 315 or 325. It's very rare that we get someone who gets the highest long term, highest spontaneous and highest style. It's happened, but not very often.

You also have a special award outside of all the scoring.

That's the Ranatra Fusca award.   Do you know what a Ranatra Fusca is?

I do not.

One of the roots of the competition was in my design class at Rowan University and I had the college kids - all 25, 30 years old. I had them make a floatation device to get around the lake. And one kid made a contraption where he sat on top of it. When he pulled the rope, the legs came together and then it would squirt out and that was his way to try to move this thing. It was built on a water insect. So,  we were three years into the program, and I wrote a problem for the show Creativity with Bill Moyers .

One team from Virginia, middle-school kids, came in this contraption. It was the ugliest thing you've ever seen. They took apart an old barn and used the old, rusty nails. It was awful looking but it was one of the most creative things I've ever seen. They made a box, put a plastic tarp in the box with about 30 gallons of water in it. They made propellers out of cedar shingles. They made a fan of about 20 shingles and hooked two fans together with bicycle chains using a tree as an axle.  They cut a cable spool in half and those were the wheels. The propellers were attached to an old washing machine water pump. The water pump pumped the water up over the top into this bucket above the driver. And as that water came in and it got heavy, it started to drop and it unwound the rope on the axle and this thing started to creep forward. Funniest thing you've ever seen. 
I said, "We gotta do something for kids, for teams that think this way." So, I asked the head of our science department, "Give me some Latin names for water insects. Nobody is going to want to win a water bug award." One name he gave me was Ranatra Fusca, which is actually a water scorpion. So we made this Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award. It looks elegant because it's in Latin. So, if a team wins that award at their state finals, they automatically get an invitation to the World Finals. If they win it at the World Finals  then we have that big trophy that was on the stage. It's taller than I am. Then, they get their name engraved and it becomes a permanent part of the Ranatra Fusca trophy. They can place dead last, it doesn't matter,  and still win that award. That's one of the great things. If I was ever going to win an award, that's the one I would want to win.  

Let's scroll back a bit. This all started as a college class? Is that correct?

As a result of these problems that I was giving to my college kids, we thought, let's get some younger kids involved. I couldn't give them problems that got them out on the lake. I had to be safe, you know. So, it was only going to be a one-time thing. And they came; there were 28 schools from NJ. Everybody had a good time. And it just hit a nerve and it started to grow from there.

And that was many, many years ago.


So this has been going on for more than 30 years.

Well, actually, "78 was the first year. I had all my hair then; my hair was a different color. Actually, I looked more like my son does, from the pictures I have from then.

Speaking of your son, I understand that you have many family members who are hooked on this too and quite involved.

Not many. My younger son runs the program. His name is Sam also; we call him Sammy, just so we keep the mail straight. He took over both what I did and what my wife did. My wife was the one who really made the program go. I could write the problems and all that, but I said four great words one time: "Carol, here. Handle this."

So you get the credit for being a  delegator.

Right. Then, she ran the competition part and I was the product developer: the problems, the books, all that.  Now Sam took over both of our roles.

He was working with me for a good 10, 15 years, I guess. He saw the whole product development end of it and he was just a natural for it. He has the best of our genes. His wife now is the accountant for the company.

It's a huge undertaking.

Yes, it is. Millions of dollars and most of it is money in, money out. Money comes in and goes to the universities where we hold World Finals.

And it happens every year.

Every year. We go to Iowa State University and Michigan State and Maryland and we're looking at some new ones.

How do you decide what's a good venue?

That's a good question. We have to take into consideration things that most people wouldn't bother thinking about. First  of all, we need a major airport. We'll fly in 7-10,000 people. Ames, Iowa is the hardest place for our people to get to. But once you're there, it's one of the best venues that we have. Michigan State has Detroit, that's a big airport; Maryland has several. Air travel is one consideration. And for international flights too, that has to be part of it. We have to have an arena that has 16-18,000 seats for the awards ceremony. That eliminates most places. They have to have at least 7,000 beds available to us; that's another thing that wipes a lot of them out.

How did you get NASA involved?

I don't even remember. I think they've been involved 11 years now. That's the longest sponsor we've ever had. There was a lady working at NASA and her friend was our North Carolina director. I think that was our "in" to them. They're a great sponsor, just perfect.

It seems to me that what you're doing is creating potential


Yes. Employees for them.

Without a doubt.

So how has this grown since you first got started. I'm assuming you didn't have 10,000 converging on a university...

We had 28 schools the first time.

How did it catch on? How did you get from there to here?

Well, there were articles in magazines written about it. I don't know how many members we have now because we do it different now. Foreign teams: what they do, they can buy a license from us. It's not that much money, it's four memberships, or five memberships, something like that. So, for $600, they can get all the teams they want in their country involved. So it's not really a money-maker for us. If a school in the US joins, it's $135 for a year and schools that are K-12 can get every kid in the school involved. We haven't raised our membership price since 1980-something.

Is there someone who's studying how it actually spreads virally, how it might be in one school and expand there and then jump to another school?

No, we really don't get into that.

But it's fascinating to contemplate. Can you talk about the rules regarding participation - that a team can be connected to a school but the teachers can't really instruct the kids on what they're doing. Is that correct?

Well, that's right. The teachers aren't supposed to teach kids how to do this. The kids are supposed to do this themselves.

That's a radical way of looking at the role of teachers.

Why should we have a be teacher telling a kid how to build a balsa wood structure when the kid could build one that would be far superior to the teacher's? What would be the purpose of doing that? The teachers play a role in this. For example, if we're having a problem with Greek mythology, the teacher can be the motivator behind the thing rather than the fact person. It's a different way of learning, there's no question about it. But I'll tell you something.  I don't know how many kids and parents I've talked to that said when the kid goes into a college interview, when they start talking about Odyssey of the Mind, a lot of them are told, "You're accepted. You'll be notified officially but you count on coming here."

Terrific. This is all teams, as opposed to individuals. Was that part of the mix too? Did you ever consider doing individual competition or was it always in your mind to do it with teams?

It's always been teams. We like the team effort. A lot of things are a team. If you have surgery: it's a team. There's one guy who's going to do the cutting but there are other people who are going to hand him the stuff and somebody else who's going to be administering the gas. Someone was saying they had a career day and there was a surgeon there and they asked  what he was recommending. And he said, get on an Odyssey of the Mind team because it's all team work. Surgery is team work.

Why is creativity is so important?

I would say that it's the essence of human beings. You know, it's not that important to a lot of people. What distinguishes people from every other creature is their mind. The way we do things, our technology advances. Some of it is accidental but a lot of it... Look at NASA. Look at the problems they had to overcome. How important is it for a kid with musical talent to play his/her instrument? It consumes them. The same with artists.

Anything we didn't talk about yet?

I don't think so. I don't think there is anything, is there?

I squeezed you dry! Thanks so much for talking with me, Sam.  It was a pleasure. Odyssey of the Mind is a real gem.

Thank you to my son Michael for the invitation to visit that turned into an unexpected adventure!

Thank you to Judi Mansfield for her editorial expertise.

Odyssey of the Mind website

Check out the 2011-2012 Long-Term Problems here!

Another Odyssey of the Mind interview:
Coach from Bath, Maine, on Recent World Finals of Odyssey of the Mind Sunday, June 19, 2011

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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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