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Students Tap into Their Creativity with Odyssey of the Mind

Students from across the district participated in a worldwide program encouraging problem solving skills and creativity.

It wasn’t Halloween, but elementary and middle school students from came to the Saturday morning decked out in capes, masks, glittery headpieces, ruby-red slippers, one noticeably large yellow-feathered big bird costume, and many matching tee-shirts reading “Odyssey of the Mind.”

The event was held to showcase the creative, problem-solving Odyssey of the Mind (OM) performances from 11 teams in the district for parents before the teams head to the state finals in Bristol on March 26.

OM was created by Professor Sam Micklus in 1978 to promote team problem solving skills. What began as a small movement in New Jersey has expanded to almost every state and many countries around the world. OM came to Stamford in 2008 after parents, teachers, and administrators felt the students needed more academic enrichment opportunities. Through email blasts and flyers, the Stamford Youth Foundation and the Parent Teacher Council got the word out about this new opportunity for students.

Students are allowed to choose from five categories that present different problem solving challenges, including building a structure, creating a small—in this case, mouse-sized—vehicle, thematic problems involving classic literature, and other humorous skits incorporating different characters. In solving those problems, the kids write their own script, incorporate an original song or dance, and make their own costumes and sets. All performances must be under eight minutes, including time to set up their scenery.

Two of the main elements, Regan Allan, parent volunteer with both the Stamford Youth Foundation and the Parent Teacher Council, told Patch, is no parent involvement and a huge emphasis on creativity.

“Parents can supervise but there is no parent assistance,” she said. “The judges look for creativity, that’s what it’s all about.”

“OM is about free expression of the imagination,” Lou Aronica, coach of team RoxOut, said.

To say the performances were creative could possibly be an understatement. One team, the Mustachioed Radishes, chose the “full circle” problem, in which something in the skit must change form or appearance at least three times. Their skit featured a girl auditioning for a play that turned into various stages of a cat and became human again with help from her ninja-fighting doctor. The team from chose to create a structure. While some members of the team placed an outstanding 119 pounds on their eight-inch balsa wooden stick structure held together by glue, the rest of the team sang a song about candy.

“Can’t read my, can’t read my, no one can read my candy face…” they sang to the melody of Lady Gaga's hit "Poker Face."

The teams begin meeting weekly in October and then meet more frequently as they move closer to the deadline of the state finals, said Margie Pinto-Leite, a parent volunteer who coached the Cloonan team with co-coach Nicole Zussman.

“The problems are so complex, so when the kids first meet we try to explain that the goal is this very creative, out-of-the box thinking,” she said. “We try to tell them that there’s no wrong answer and if it sounds wacky to just go with it.”

Pinto-Leite said teams choose their problem usually based on what the strengths of the group members are. Mechanically minded students may choose to build a structure or vehicle, while students that are interested in theater arts may focus more on writing a creative storyline. Overall, the students must work together as a team.

“That’s one of the reasons I love this program because it’s such a slice of real life," Pinto-Leite said. "Sometimes you get thrown into a situation that you don’t necessarily love and that can be challenging, but you work together as a team."

Teams that place first and second in the state finals will travel to the world finals at the University of Maryland Memorial Day weekend. Last year, the and teams won at the Connecticut finals and Roxbury placed fourth overall at the world finals in Michigan, beating out teams from Singapore, China, Germany, and Poland. Pinto-Leite chaperoned last year's Westover team, coached by Melissa Gallaher-Smith, on their trip to Michigan.

“It was an unbelievable experience — it brings together kids from all over the world,” Pinto-Leite said. “It’s the kind of place where you walk around and don’t really look twice about somebody dressed up head to toe in some bizarre costume walking down the street. The creativity is just overblowing and it shows.”

To get involved or learn more information about Odyssey of the Mind, contact the Stamford Youth Foundation or visit www.odysseyofthemind.com

James Verghese March 11, 2011 at 01:04 AM
Thanks for covering this event!
Marjorie Pinto-Leite March 12, 2011 at 09:17 PM
So glad this event was covered! It's a terrific article, and I'm happy to be a part of it. Just one correction, though - I did not COACH Westover's team last year - Melissa Gallaher-Smith was their parent coach. My son was on the team, and I went to Michigan as a chaperone (and helped out as a co-coach to Melissa for the World Finals only). Just wanted to make sure Melissa receives her due credit as an AMAZING World-Finals-placing coach (not me)! Thanks... Margie
Chandra Johnson Greene March 14, 2011 at 02:04 PM
Sorry about that, Marjorie! It has been fixed :-)

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