Youth are given problems to solve creatively through teamwork. These tasks incorporate acting, play writing, set design and construction, musical composition, robotics, and other creative skills.
Millions of children and teenagers from kindergarten through college, representing 25 countries, participate. These contestants form thousands of teams. They work for approximately nine months to solve their given long-term problem, which is answered through an eight minute long performance. A spontaneous problem is also solved on the spot, with no preparation whatsoever. The Odyssey of the Mind is focused on encouraging students to use their imagination to the greatest capacity in the hope that they will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. According to the OM website (www.odysseyofthemind.com), “. . .in Odyssey of the Mind problems, there isn’t one right answer. Ever.” The name of the contest is rather appropriate since the participants travel distances through their minds that are longer than the voyage of the famed Odysseus. They seek one of the infinite solutions with as much vigor as Odysseus did when searching for his home.
The Odyssey of the Mind’s goal is for students to become self-sufficient along their journey. Although each team has a coach, their role is strictly to support the team members, not to help with the problem solving. Coaches are often schoolteachers, but occasionally they are parents. In some cases they choose to have their students join OM to encourage them to learn and find joy in it. While other teachers have pupils who cannot get enough of school or problem solving. Some students have older siblings, who participated in OM in the past and inspire them to join, in which case The Odyssey of the Mind turns into a cherished family event that is looked forward to annually.
Earlier this year I was fortunate to meet a family friend, Magda, from Gdansk, Poland, whose team (ranging in age from 16 to 19) participated in the 2011 Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Maryland. They were accompanied by another team from Gdansk that attended the finals as well. Many of the kids had either participated in OM previously or had older siblings who had. Before going back to their home country, both teams visited New York City where I was able to show them my home, Brooklyn, and ask them questions about their experience in OM. Whether we were introducing them to new foods, stopping in stores, or wandering the Brooklyn Museum, all of the team members were eager to talk about their experiences while participating in the Odyssey of the Mind.
Magda’s team’s project was to:
“present an uncomplicated existing item that is used in a simple and effective way to complete a real life task. The teams will also create their own solution, a device made out of an unnecessarily complex series of components that will perform the same task as the existing item. The performance will include an inventor character and a marketing plan/sales pitch for its creation.”
The team decided the object they were going to build would be a large “needle threader,” which worked due to a long chain reaction. The skit they created was, in their owns words, “a funny, short story about typical Polish family” that lived on a river with a dam. The dam was made out of a giant needle, but it had a hole in it and the water was pouring through. In order to solve this problem the family built a complex “needle threader” to insert a huge string, which would block the water. All was successful for the small family and the actual Polish students, who came in 16th place worldwide, while the other team from Gdansk came in 5th.
Coming to America was not only fun but an enlightening experience for the Polish teams. According to Magda, at The Odyssey of the Mind world finals “everybody helped each other – there was almost no such thing as rivalry.” Her fellow teammate Olek said, “It was my second time in the world finals, and both times were unforgettable. The enormous crowd of colorfully dressed people, being so kind and helpful to each other, made it especially memorable. Moreover, it is great to have the awareness that you are a representative of your country and proudly wave your flag.” Their colleague Agnieszka also had a positive view of the competition. She said, “while staying in the USA, we learned a few things: Odyssey people are extremely friendly and they love to help others! In my opinion, making new friends is the most important experience. You can learn something about different cultures or just talk. The Odyssey of the Mind finals give you a great opportunity to do so… We also saw a lot of great performances and solutions, which we had never thought about.” Anna, who was a member of the other team from Gdansk, exclaimed, “it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.”
The Odyssey of the Mind attracts young people like Magda and her friends from all over the world and allows them to watch and learn from one another. Children and teenagers of many ages, ethnicities, and points of view have the chance to examine different solutions to the same problems and speak together through the universal language of imagination. The contestants ofthe Odyssey of the Mind are able to focus on the similarities between each other, not the differences — they are all brought together by creativity.
Anya Dunaif is in 9th grade at Saint Ann’s School. She lives in Brooklyn with her parents and little brother. Anya loves painting, drawing, film, photography, and writing.
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