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Odyssey of the Mind challenges students on multiple academic fronts

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Costumes, props, scenery, nervous chatter, smiles and song filled the hallways of Watertown High School and Case Middle School on Saturday morning, as nearly 400 students from across the area prepared for this year’s Region 9 Odyssey of the Mind competition.

In its 25th year, the event offers students an opportunity to develop links among academic subjects such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, literature, creative writing, art, music and drama. The competition includes a variety of problems, from building mechanical devices to interpreting literary classics.

While performance in front of a team of judges is over in minutes, the students have been preparing since October.

“I really don’t know what it’s about,” Todd O’Donnell said.

He and his wife, Jennifer, waited for their daughter Alyssa, a sophomore at Lyme Central School, Chaumont, to take the stage with her seven-member team.

That might seem like an odd answer for a parent, but there’s a valid reason behind it.

All parts of the students’ competition, from the solution to a posed problem to choreography, scripts, songs, wardrobe and set design, come from the students themselves.

“It’s all them,” Mrs. O’Donnell said. “They do everything from scratch.”

Saturday’s competition was the first time the parents in attendance were seeing the finished product, but it was not the first time they’d seen the team perform.

This was the seventh year Alyssa’s team competed together.

It’s common for teams to remain intact, competing each year.

“This is a great group and they work well together,” Mrs. O’Donnell said. “They know their strengths and weaknesses.”

Team members meet approximately once a week starting in the fall, but as competition nears, they practice more frequently.

Winter weather and frequent cancellation of after-school activities posed a challenge for many teams this year.

The competition is judged by a large cast of volunteers — nearly 140 this year.

Those judges, according to the Odyssey of the Mind guidelines, are encouraged to “consider yourself part of the audience that is allowed to award scores.”

In fact, the judges moved from a scoring table to the bleachers to watch students perform their six-minute skits.

They then approached the team and asked questions about their solution to the problem.

Five problems posed to different levels of competition were: “Driver’s Test,” where teams design, build and drive a vehicle that will travel a course at least two times while a student driver attempts to complete tasks needed to pass a driver’s test; “The Not-So-Haunted House” where teams must create and present an original performance that includes a “pop-up-style,” not-so-haunted “house,” in which four special effects take place; “The Stackable Structure,” in which teams design and build a structure made up of separate components stacked on top of one another; “It’s How We Rule,” where teams create and present an original humorous performance that includes a replication of a historic royal court on their own team-created court, set at a different time and place, and “Seeing Is Believing,” in which teams are asked to create and present an original performance about a community that feels threatened by something in a location they have never visited.

The problem posed for children in kindergarten through second grade was “Primary: The World’s First Art Festival,” in which teams create and present an original and humorous performance about a prehistoric art festival.

In addition to the planned performance challenge, teams compete in spontaneous challenges, such as a technical challenge or a challenge using balsa wood to create structures.

The goals of the competition are for students to learn about cooperative teamwork, evaluate ideas, make decisions and create solutions.

Finalists will participate in the New York State Odyssey of the Mind Competition on April 12 at SUNY Binghamton. They could also earn the opportunity to compete in the World Finals, to be held May 28 through 31 at Iowa State University.

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