Stretching the mind with Odyssey

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Competition that challenges student creativity is 30 years old

By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

They use lengths of dryer hose to make the dangling arms of the ultimate spider woman, re-imagine the mythological three-headed dog Cerebrus as part chihuahua - part doberman pinscher, construct their own set and write their own script.

‘They’ are the clever minds behind Eminence High School’s Odyssey of the Mind team.

Shelby Dees, Nikki Gamble, Katie Mathis, Cassie Emily, Ricky Spreitzer, Travis Fisher and Ethan Dowden are the members of this year’s elite squad. The seven freshman and sophomore students have amassed a combined 27 years’ experience in Odyssey.

Their year-long mission is to create and present an original performance that includes the ancient Greek hero Heracles. The time limit for this “problem” is eight minutes which includes setup and presentation.

Teams must make their own sets and costumes and receive only $125 to spend. “We ask for donated wood and cardboard,” Gamble said, “and the boys help choose materials.”

The rules state that the team will create an original performance that includes:

• the Greek hero Heracles (whose Roman name is Hercules).

• Heracles performing one of the 12 Classic Labors as described in this problem.

• Heracles performing a team-created Lost Labor and the reason it was forgotten in history.

• an artistic representation of an ancient Greek god or goddess that comes to life.

• a team-created mythological creature.

• an additional team-created character.

Cassie Emily was chosen to portray muscle-man Heracles. “It’s funny because I’m small,” she said. Heracles will perform the 12th Classic Labor capturing Cerebrus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld.

Emily’s three-headed sidekicks will be played by Fisher and Dowden. “I’m Elvis, a Taco Bell dog,” Fisher said. Dowden described his character Agent 008. “He’s a doberman pinscher with crab claws for hands,” he said. “Pincher, get it?”

They came up with a spider woman as the team-created mythological creature. Gamble and Dees make up the two halves of the spider woman. The team brainstormed costume ideas such as creating a top made out of bubble wrap, and horned rim glasses for her. “She’d look like the receptionist in Monsters, Inc.,” Dees said.

Mathis will portray the additional team-created character, a fly-on-the-wall.

Spreitzer has the part of the king who looks up into the rain and drowns.

Their artistic representation of a god or goddess will be a mechanized goddess Hera. “It will be a model of her face with moving mouth and eyes,” Gamble said.

The team’s enthusiasm is equalled by the coaches who donate their time and expertise to shepherd the Odyssey participants.

An enormous green mechanized dinosaur, part of a previous Odyssey project, dominates the front of middle school science teacher/Odyssey coach Steve Metcalfe’s classroom. Every green scale and moving part was designed by a previous Odyssey of the Mind team.

“This is the 30th year for the competition,” he said, “and the 11th for Eminence.”

Odyssey of the Mind came about in the ‘70s when University of New Jersey professor, Dr. C. Samuel Micklus, a teacher of Industrial Design challenged his students to think differently, building vehicles that could move without wheels and mechanical pie throwers. The students had so much fun and were so successful in their endeavors that local media began coverage of their escapades. Soon “Dr. Sam” was the founder of a competition that now includes more than 25 countries and millions of students from K-12. Micklus and his son, Sammy, still develop all of the problems for the program.

Metcalfe said the district has supported as many as nine and as few as two teams in a given year. “This year we have four,” he said.

Metcalfe said the teams begin work on their projects in August to be ready for the competitions the following May.

Teams compete at the state level to win a slot at the World Finals. “We’ve gone to the Worlds five years,” he said. “There were 800 teams last year at the University of Maryland.”

Metcalfe said in world competition Eminence teams have placed ninth, eighth, third and second.

Elementary School science teacher/Odyssey coach Lynn Wilson described the type of students who gravitate to Odyssey. “Style and creativity are the hardest parts,” she said, “so these are creative kids who work well in small teams.”

Wilson said a big draw for the students is the opportunity to travel. “They competed in Colorado then Maryland,” she said. “This year the finals are in Iowa.”

Students and coaches are deeply committed to the project. “Terri Walther got us all hooked,” Wilson said. Walther is a former Eminence school teacher who first involved the school system in Odyssey.

Metcalfe said it has been a part of his life for many years. “It’s a lot of work August through May, after school and weekends,” he said. “It’s a lot of volunteer time.” Metcalfe said daughters Ballard, 17 and Rachel, 15 also have participated.

Wilson said Eminence really gets behind the project. She said Special Education teacher, Beth Kaiser works as a volunteer fund raiser for the teams. “It’s good public relations for the school,” Wilson said. “Some people will give money for this instead of sports,” Metcalfe said.

He said the whole student body gets to see the teams’ skits before the competition. “The kids like to see what we’re working on,” he said. “We practice in front of the school.”

The seven teenagers raved about the program and their coaches. The group said their favorite things about Odyssey of the Mind are working as a team, the competition and travel. “It’s like our second home,” Gamble said.

“But, we couldn’t do this without our coaches,” Dees said. “We have a close relationship.”


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