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EDUCATION Mind Games

How’d you like to build a balsa wood tower that can hold 352 pounds?

THE PROBLEM: CREATE A tower between 8 and 8 1/2 inches in height consisting only of strips of balsa wood no thicker than 1/8 inch, held together by glue. Laminating the strips is not allowed. The tower must have an open area running its entire length that will accept a circular column 2 inches in diameter. Once the tower is in place (around the column) a “crusher” board will be lowered onto it and weights will be stacked on top until the structure collapses or splinters. Along with “solving” the technical aspects, you also must develop a skit, props, or speech incorporating facts about the tower and the weight.

At a February competition in Garland, one of these balsa wood towers held 352 pounds. As the weight was being loaded on, certain members of the technical team acted out a witty skit (complete with backdrop and prompt signs for the audience) in which a circus strong man competed against the tower to see which of the two could handle the most weight.

The technical team members behind this engineering wonder were sixth graders from Lakewood Elementary in Dallas. The event was the North Texas Two competition of Odyssey of the Mind (OM), an international program that each year challenges its members, kids K through college, with open-ended, long-term problems. Their solutions, which take several months to develop, are presented first at local and regional competitions.

Texas has more OM members than any other state, with a current standing of more than 720. Memberships ($90 or $125, depending on the team’s level) are generally purchased by a school. For each membership purchased, the school is eligible to enter one team per problem for each division competition. Teams consist of no more than seven members; consequently, some schools might have more than one team per problem and division. They then have their own competitions to decide which team will represent the school at the OM competition. Currently 12 DISD schools have memberships. “

DISD has so much opportunity to grow,” exclaims Micky Mayer, the state director of OM, and a consultant for gifted and talented programs at Region 10 Education Service Center in Richardson. “They have tripled their memberships in the past two or three years.”

Mayer takes her OM seriously, but in ways one might find surprising. While she acknowledges that Richardson and Piano schools have grabbed many of the academic accolades for North Texas, she stresses her desire for OM to embrace a wider segment of social and economic backgrounds. In fact, the primary reason for the myriad rules accompanying OM problems, including limitations on the amount of money that can be used in a solution, is an attempt to level the playing field so that all groups, no matter where they are from, get an even start.

“You don’t have to be targeted as academically gifted to participate,” Mayer continues. “I think we forget that creativity is a gift as well.”

Actually, to stress “competition” as the raison d’etre of OM misses the point and the power of the process; the feeling is that what happened in the three months of practice preceding the day of judging is as important as the final result. Phrases such as “divergent thinking is rewarding,” “youthful energies are channeled in positive directions,” and “making new friends is encouraged,” pepper the official sheet entitled “OM Philosophy.”

Four main divisions, broken down by grade, exist within OM: Division I, K-5; Division II, 6-8; Division III, 9-12; and Division IV. collegiate. In North Texas Two, which covers Dallas and most of its suburbs, the vast majority of teams come from the first two divisions. This year’s problems, depending on division, were OMer’s Buggy Lite (Design, construct, and drive a battery-powered, lightweight vehicle that must perform specific functions, and create a theme for its presentation); Give and Go (Make or adapt devices to move tennis balls into four targets in sequence, and create a theme for the presentation); Pompeii (Create and present a performance including a scene that takes place in the ancient city of Pompeii before or during its devastation); Super Collider (Design and build a structure of balsa wood and glue that will withstand weight and collider impacts); and Transformation (Create and present a performance that shows a series of real or imaginary changes or evolutions of something; the team must take photographs and/or make drawings illustrating each phase of the transformation). There is also a non-graded problem, Bedtime Story, for K-2.

In Odyssey of the Mind, strict rules limit the amount of adult intervention, guidance, and kvetching that is allowed, and even the coaches have limited roles.

’’Coaching in OM takes someone who is very Socratic,” Mayer says. “After you coach a year you develop scars on your tongue from biting it so much.”

After each group’s performance, the kids are quizzed by judges to determine who in the group did the coloring, building, designing, or thought up the presentation. Each group also competes in a spontaneous problem which is unknown to the team until presented to them by the judges. No coaches, parents, or spectators are allowed to observe.

Points for solving the long-term problem, for style, and for the spontaneous problem are added, and winners are declared. February brought the local competitions. Region-als were held in March, followed by state finals in April. And world finals will commence late this month.

The combining of the creative with the technical creates interesting forms of expression. Kids incorporate what they hear and see in daily life into the skits. Fifth graders from Dover Elementary created a rap song, “Hot Lava,” to the tune of (what else?) “U Can’t Touch This,” about the destruction of Pompeii. A Super Collider group bombed Baghdad as each weight was added. That same group made close to 50 practice towers before deciding on the model they would use in competition,

OM coaches, being adults who live and work in a competitive, goal-oriented environment, sometimes find themselves frustrated by the kids’ apparent lack of focus. The Preston Hollow group, an all-boy team (two fourth graders, five sixth graders) competing in the Super Collider problem, spent many of their practices “getting together and talking about girls,” according to coach Walter Barnes, a mortgage banker whose son, Edward, was on the team. “We tried to meet once a week for two hours, but because the kids wanted to socialize, the problem solving often got set aside,” says Barnes. Coaches, not surprisingly, want kids to process information like adults-think pounds, not girls. By OM standards, however, the socializing was part of the creative process. After three months of finding out who likes whom and who is weird, the kids are a team and function as one,

The Preston Hollow team arrived at Garland’s Naaman Forest High School with a structure slightly unlike any they had tried in practice. (The year before the boys had competed in the same event and built a tower which held 75 pounds.) Their skit was a little vague, using a football theme, and then they started applying the weight-162 pounds before a rattling crack and thud resounded through the gym. Thrilled, they headed oft to the spontaneous problem where they were given a piece of paper, scissors, string, and four rubber bands and told to make as long a continuous line as they could, the idea being to stretch the rubber bands without breaking the paper.

At the awards presentation later in the afternoon, they learned they had finished second in their division and would advance to the regionals. Though weak on style points, they had finished first in spontaneous. The 352-pounders had finished first in the overall contest.

“It was the most exciting thing,” Barnes said of the announcement of their finish. “There was a sense of pride and accomplishment. Several parents told me their boys woke up the next morning talking about it.”

And what were Barnes’s rewards’? “I got a better understanding of my son’s niche in school. It gave me a unique chance to see him socialize.”

Bashing the educational system is an easy and popular pastime. Today’s educational system, everyone likes to say, is spewing out a generation of semi-functional morons. Teachers, students, administrators, drinking fountains, pencils, and Big Chief tablets just aren’t what they were when we were in school. The success of OM, however, shows that there are a lot of kids out there who can think.

Disagree? Well, how many balsa woodtowers capable of holding 352 pounds didyou build today?

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