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April 26, 2005 > Odyssey of the Mind

Odyssey of the Mind

There are little geniuses among us in Fremont

by Veronica Velasquez

Three teams from the Fremont Unified School District won this year's state Odyssey of the Mind (OM) competition in the first two divisions. Mission San Jose Elementary, Hopkins Junior High, and Mission San Jose High all placed in the long-term problem-solving categories, an altogether extraordinary honor for the district. All three teams are now on their way to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals to be held in Boulder, Colorado from May 21 to May 24.

OM began 26 years ago when Dr. Sam Micklus, professor emeritus at Rowan University in New Jersey, began posing challenging problems to his industrial design class. He was not exactly looking for successful solutions, but rather feasible, innovative ones. Eventually, his project became legend among New Jersey teachers and students, and in 1978, Dr. Micklus' first-ever creative-solving competition was held.

OM encourages students to apply their creativity in solving problems ranging from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. The problems appeal to a wide range of interests; some are technical in nature, while others are artistic or performance-oriented. Kids are rewarded more for how they apply their knowledge, skills and talents than for coming up with the "correct" answer. In fact, in Odyssey of the Mind problems, there isn't one right solution.

To participate, competing schools purchase a membership and teams of up to seven students are formed. Stringent rules apply to the competition including a strict budget of $50- $140, depending on the category, and a time limit of eight minutes per performance. Competitors are divided into five divisions based on grade level. This includes set-up time, as groups are judged on how well-orchestrated their construction procedure is, reflecting their knack for team-building. Each team has at least one adult coach who is expressly forbidden from helping students solve the problem.

There is a "spontaneous" category, in which the students solve a problem on the spot, and a "long-term" category, where teams begin work about six months prior to competition. Teams compete at the regional level with winners advancing to state level. From there, each first and second-place team, plus the recipients of the Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award, continue on to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals.

With its first-ever entry, MSJ Elementary won first place in the regional division. Nihar Parkikh, Rohan Chandra, Rohit Bose, Hannah Gorelik, William Kim, Polly Ma, and Shray Bansal, a mix of MSJ fourth and fifth-graders, went on to win at the state level competition in Visalia, CA.

Their task, in the "In Your Dreams" category, was to create a performance of a dream that holds cheerful, nonsensical, and nightmarish qualities, all at once. The children were to also create a dream monster, which must change in appearance by itself, and perform two tasks, of the team's own devise. The kids designed the monster so that it could turn its head 180 degrees.

The skit consists of a dream that "Mike" (Parikh) has while on a camping trip with pals. Mike dreams that a monster threatens the group, and he must use whatever materials he has at hand and his imagination to "kill" it. The monster is clever, however, and Mike gets quite a fright trying to come up with a way to banish it. In the end, he uses a crystal laser to zap it into oblivion, and the brave band of campers celebrates with a song and dance, which they composed and choreographed themselves.

Although Mike and the monster are the focal part of the skit, the skills of the entire group really stand out, as technicians, musicians, actors, engineers, and crafters. It is definitely a project that utilizes the best of everyone's abilities, and the way they work seamlessly together is a testament to what they've learned about cooperation, hard work, and problem-solving.

Before they could begin problem-solving, however, the children had to learn how to delegate tasks among team members.

"They have to work together as a team, and do it all on their own," said Asha Chandra, team parent. "They have to build a process to utilize the team's artistic, engineering, musical, etc. skills."

The children proudly point out creative, well-engineered aspects of their project, but they don't brag about their own talents. Instead, they tirelessly illustrate the talents of their team mates.

"Polly did the scripts, sewing, and props," Bansal pointed out. "And Rohit did the music, sound effects, screams, and the bell sounds for the crystal."

"We all combine different art, music, technical, 'whatever' skills," said William Kim.

These kids not only share a professional rapport, they also put forth a smooth, concerted effort, revealing the closeness they've developed from months of hard work.

"I really felt like we were a team when I watched the video of our skit," said Bose. "I liked the outcome a lot."

"We could have done better," critiqued Gorelik.

"But we did better than when we started," reminded Parikh.

The World Finals will host an audience of 18,000. Nearly 800 US teams will compete, as well as 20 international teams. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, and MSJ Elementary principal Mildred Byrd could not be prouder of her students. She went the distance with the team, becoming the first principal to travel with them to the state competition.

"It's so wonderful how the students won the competition in their first year, which is very unusual," Byrd said. "They made such a wonderful skit. For them to devote the time that it took to make it a winning performance, I had to get behind them."

The Hopkins Junior High team was presented with the problem of creating two stunt mobiles. The task called for the mobiles to be operated on two different power systems, and they each had to cross a finish line. The team divided the project into two sub teams, with one working on a low-tech vehicle, and the other a very high-tech, remote-controlled entry.

"We've been working like crazy on the vehicles," said eighth grader Alex Krishnan. "I'm in charge of building them, as the programmer, a sort of engineer. Our presentation is a sort of game show theme, with the two teams, the low-tech team and what we call the 'MIT geek team', pitting their vehicles against each other."

The junior high team placed third, and they will be going on to the world competition, along with the MSJ high school and elementary teams.

As for the high school team, they placed first in two categories: the "In Your Dreams" category, and the "Crazy Columns" division. For the latter category, the team had to create a structure out of balsa wood that could balance and support as great an amount of weight as possible. The structure had to be put together using only glue and the structure could be in three different, free-standing parts. The team won their category, building a structure that supported all the weights available at the regional and state competitions. It would have continued to support more, had the contest officials not run out of weights.

How excited are the students about the impending finals?

"I've gone with my sister (a MSJ high student), tagging along as a sibling," said Alex Krishnan. "But it's way more exciting for me now (as a competitor)!"

"I'm looking forward to meeting the teams from different parts of the world," Rohit Bose said dreamily.

Nihar Parikh was more concerned about the lodgings, "I would have liked to stay in the dorms."

"I would have liked to stay in the hotel you're staying in," countered Kuo playfully, whose team will be staying in the dorms.

And some were thrilled at the opportunity to exchange collector's pins, a practice that exists as one of many of the microcosms that orbit around the World Finals:

"I'm excited about trading mine," trilled Hannah Gorelik.

"Yeah, the pins!" exclaimed Polly Ma, beaming, in total agreement.

While William Kim expressed only anxiety on behalf of the team:

"What do we do to fix our mistakes?" he asked, a pinched, worried expression on his face, to the laughter of the group. "No, really, how do we cover them up?"

They could tell Kim not to worry, but it would probably be futile. Oh, well, Einstein was known to stress out, too.

Today California, tomorrow the world! Now that all three teams have solid presentations for the World Finals, what remains as their largest challenge to date? Fundraising!

The teams are joining together to raise $10,000 needed to finance the trip to Boulder, Colorado.

The MSJ teams will be hosting a fundraiser dinner at Sweet Tomatoes on Paseo Padre and Walnut Ave. on Wednesday, May 11th. Those who would like to attend to support the schools can go to the team web site and download the coupon, which must be presented at the restaurant to count towards the fundraiser.

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