South Charlotte

Odyssey of the Mind builds confidence, problem-solving skills

While most school-age children were sleeping late on a Saturday morning in November, several teams from local schools converged on the Bissell Campus of Charlotte Country Day to expand their minds at the North Carolina Odyssey of the Mind Central Region Skills Fair.

They may have been learning, but for some it was simply fun - sort of like eating your vegetables and really liking them at the same time.

Bart Austin of Mountainbrook and Dick Raley of Kingswood, volunteer co-directors of North Carolina Odyssey of the Mind Central Region, have served as coaches for past Odyssey teams and assisted in coordinating the fair, where kids played and learned skills to prepare for the Odyssey of the Mind Central Region Tournament on March 5 at Wingate University.

Janice Palmer, seventh-grade science teacher and department chair at Charlotte Country Day, called the skills fair "a success."

"Charlotte Country Day was very honored to host it," said Palmer, who also coordinates the nine teams at Charlotte Country Day, some of which were in attendance at the skills fair.

Teams learned all sorts of tasks, including working with pulleys, sewing, writing scripts and creating items from recycled materials. In the Odyssey of the Mind competition, children must work without adult assistance to solve a problem, so they often need a wide range of abilities.

The competition requires teams to choose a problem from a set of five and work creatively to solve it. The creative aspect of Odyssey of the Mind requires that children come up with unconventional solutions to seemingly simple problems.

The coach serves as a facilitator and cannot help the teams develop answers.

The coaches "can't tell a kid what to do. It empowers the team to have self-assurance that they can do things on their own," said Austin.

The teams, typically five to seven members, can begin working on their problems when they become members of Odyssey of the Mind. The teams present their solutions in an eight-minute presentation at the competition, which is divided by grade levels: kindergarten-fifth grade, sixth-eighth grade, ninth-12 grade and collegiate.

"All of the problems get to some kind of performance and you've got to have some kind of script, and they usually have to have some kind of set," said Raley.

Teams also are expected to solve a spontaneous problem given to them at the competition, which requires them to think creatively and critically on their feet.

The presentation class and the papier-mache class were a big hit with the Polo Ridge Elementary teams, according to Animikh Sen, a team coach and father of daughter Ahana, 10, and son Anik, 8, who participate in Odyssey of the Mind.

Sen coordinates the five teams at Polo Ridge. "The teachers (of the classes) were so engaged with the kids, and they enjoyed that," said Sen.

Beth Rennie, a parent and volunteer coach for the Alexander Graham Middle and Selwyn Elementary teams, has been involved with Odyssey of the Mind for three years.

"There are few things in life that give my kids and our kids such a confidence boost," said Rennie. Rennie's daughters, Julianna, 11, and Alexa, 8, participate on separate teams.

"The really amazing thing is when you go to tournaments and the high school kids are there, and they are setting up games for the little kids, and they're totally into it. And the college kids come back and they're judges," said Rennie.

Austin said he is grateful for volunteers like Rennie.

"Odyssey of the Mind is founded on the hard work of the children and all the volunteers that make it possible," said Austin, who calls the volunteers the "unsung heroes of the organization."

In the papier-mache class, children laid paper triangles on molds of foil faces to make masks. Graeme Elrod, 10, of Davidson Elementary, who participated in the class, said, "It was fun because you could get all messy with the papier-mache glue and make a lot of stuff.

"You can pretty much make anything, like fish in a net or anything else."

Katie Matkins, 11, of Alexander Graham Middle School, participated in the presentation workshop, where she learned how to project while speaking. She said she likes that Odyssey of the Mind "teaches you to think differently than you would usually think."

Katie's teammate Elizabeth Anne Smith, 12, agreed: "It teaches you to be creative and think outside of the box and be spontaneous. You have to come up with things on the spot."

Austin said he believes "that at every school ... the kids should have the opportunity to do this. There is a certain percentage of kids in every school that would thrive on it, and it's just not available."

It's not too late to get involved as a team or as a volunteer, say Austin and Raley: Schools can register until Dec. 31 to compete in the Central Region Tournament.