They could have picked the simple route – stick with their own school, maybe get PTA backing, make sure everybody lives nearby.
Instead, six middle school kids from across Wake County assembled their own Odyssey of the Mind team via the West Raleigh Rotary Club. The creativity and flair of the group of friends has propelled them to the competition’s world finals in Iowa next month.
“We work together so well because most of us have known each other for so long. We’re really comfortable with each other, so you don’t feel pressure to not look stupid,” said Brienna Kane, 13. “It’s just like family.”
Started more than 30 years ago in New Jersey, the Odyssey of the Mind problem-solving competition draws student teams from around the world each year. More than 2,000 students participated in the initial Eastern Region competition, which includes Wake County. Three other Raleigh teams are going to the world tournament along with the West Raleigh Rotary Club team, from Sycamore Creek Elementary, Partnership Elementary and Carnage Middle.
To get there, all have sacrificed free time since September to brainstorm and create solutions to one of five problems posed by the international Odyssey of the Mind competition. Teams can tackle as many of the problems as they choose. The top two teams in each age category for each problem get to move to the next level, from regional and state competitions up to the world tournament.
Brienna Kane, Noah Giroux and Amelia Flick first traveled to world finals together back in 2009, as students at Joyner Elementary. After that, even when Brienna left for Daniels Middle School, Amelia enrolled at Exploris, and Noah headed to East Garner Middle, they knew they wanted to stay a team, along with some trusted new recruits.
“Once you’ve made it to worlds, you know how much work it takes,” Brienna said. “New people don’t know, so you have to explain it to them, and it’s hard to explain. So we just stuck together.”
Besides, the team just works so well together. Everyone pitches in on every aspect of the project, but each team member finds their specialty as time goes on. Noah is the hands, good at construction but without Brienna’s patience and precision with engineering design. Kaylee Lewis has an artistic eye. Amelia is a wizard at papier-mache and brainstorming, while Emma Rossetti has found a gift for writing scripts. Spencer DeMartz is the glue that holds the group together – “something about his personality made the team click,” team coach Myra Kane said.
“It sounds so cheesy, but I love them – we all love each other,” said Kaylee, 14.
The idea behind Odyssey of the Mind is to encourage students to brainstorm multiple ways of solving the same problem, then pick one and figure out how to put it into practice as a team. It teaches creativity and teamwork, Eastern Region director Tom Hansen said, along with tangible skills such as engineering, construction and writing.
“A lot of creativity comes from having a lot of ideas and being able to filter them,” Hansen said. “It’s a skill that’s very important, but not usually taught in school.”
This is a big year for Carnage Middle, Hansen said: their first time in a few years making it to the world tournament. The Sycamore Creek students were nearly eliminated when their project placed fourth in the state competition but were invited to the world tournament because of their ingenious answer to a spontaneous question from judges. Partnership Elementary has dominated the field at balsawood building for years, Hansen said, constructing structures from the featherlight wood that hold up to 400 pounds.
The West Raleigh Rotary team placed first in the state competition and received a special creativity award for their project. It features a mechanized car with two kinds of propulsion systems that can show emotions, a pop-up house that collapses, floods and is rebuilt and a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly.
The team has just one remaining hurdle. Without a PTA to help with fundraising or a school community to donate, the six students have to raise $10,000 in the next six weeks. That’s to cover transportation for the six team members, their chaperones and their project props, plus room and board while they’re in Iowa. Along with their near-daily practice sessions, the team is working on everything from door-to-door sales to car washes to raise cash.
Then again, they just won an award for creative problem-solving. The odds are good that they’ll figure something out – but in the meantime, a little donation goes a long way.