Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. But imagination encircles the world.”
Or, as fifth-grader Taran Santoshi explained, “It’s fun to hang out with your friends in someone’s basement figuring out how to make stuff.’”
Sarada Sangameswaran, Odyssey of the Mind (OM) coordinator at Washington Elementary School, coached her son Taran’s OM team of fifth-graders last year. OM, she explained, is focused on developing and presenting a team’s unique solution to a frankly complicated problem which they’ve chosen from a group of four or five—and spending weeks and months solving it through brainstorming, teamwork, hands-on experimentation, unbridled enthusiasm for crazy ideas and resourcefulness, with the humor and general goofiness of a group of fifth graders. Sarada does not provide solutions. She, like other OM coaches, gives prompts to help the kids think differently, think on their feet and point at a possible angle they may have missed.
OM is not a school district activity, but rather an extracurricular program, created by an industrial design professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. Dr. Sam Micklas’s classes in creative problem solving were so popular they filled up within hours. The course grew into Olympics of the Mind, where teams competed to win points for solving elaborate problems. The name changed to Odyssey of the Mind a few years later. In today’s OM, students in the primary grades up to college level assemble teams, and compete to win points on how well they meet a problem’s specific criteria at a tournament held in the spring. Teams must demonstrate their creative solution for judges with an eight-minute live (or videotaped) presentation where they are scored by how well they met the long list of criteria included in the problem package. Schools in our district compete at the regional, state and national levels, and finally, at world level, against students from more than 24 countries.
Mt. Lebanon has 28 students on OM teams at the high school, Hoover, Lincoln, Washington and Markham elementary schools.
Last school year, Mt. Lebanon’s 11th-grade OM team, coached by parent Kerry McGee, went all the way to World Level competition, winning second place for their presentation, in addition to the coveted Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award for exceptional style in presentation.
Teamwork and the “OM Moment”
Whether the team is in elementary, middle or high school, each member has a hand in contributing ideas, solutions and materials, creating the set, props and costumes, writing scripts and staying true to the spirit of the problem.
“In school, kids learn very specific things,’ explains coach Kerry. “Here, they learn teamwork: how to brainstorm, how to generate all kinds of crazy ideas—the crazier the better sometimes.”
As the presentation takes shape, they discover strengths they didn’t know they had.
On the 11th-grade team, it was Leah Vuillemot’s gift for project management. “Leah was the force that pushed us to get busy and finish,” noted teammate Melody Reynolds. ‘Hey everyone! The set is only half painted! Let’s go,’ she’d say.” Teammate Natalie McGee pulled out her costuming and set engineering skills to help advance their teams’ solutions.
The team created a set of multiple layers of glued cardboard, built to support a team member as a coffee shop counter, a slide, a pedestal and more, shape-changing as needed throughout the story. The team constructed a striking floor-length cape for one of the characters, which was made completely of recycled materials—in the zeitgeist of pandemic online shopping and climate activism—bubble wrap, recycling bags and packing material, complete with the image of a classic story featured on its back. All was going smoothly until a fountain they’d built for the set wouldn’t hold together. At the end of a long evening, three team members sat glumly in the McGee’s basement, spitballing ideas on how they could keep the fountain from disintegrating.
“This, explained Kerry, “is what’s known as an ‘OM Moment.’ They have to stay with it until they figure it out.” No parent, no teacher, no expert to solve their dilemma.
“How to make everything work—that was the hardest part,” agreed Leah.
But persistence paid off: they figured it out.
“For everyone, it’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it,” said their coach.
Resilience is a Learned Skill
Dr. Susan Rosati, regional director of Odyssey of the Mind, heads up the western Pennsylvania region, which at 130 teams and 600 members, is the largest in the state. Rosati has been an active presence in OM universe for about 21 years; three of her four grown children were OMers. She created an OM-based Ingenuity Camp weeklong mini-Odyssey summer experience designed to train young brains to foster resilience, risk taking and collaboration in an atmosphere which rewards out-of-the-box thinking. She knows, as we all eventually learn, we are meant to struggle while solving problems. Parents have sometimes been guilty of jumping in a little too soon to “helpfully” provide a solution, rather than watch our kids walk through the fire. This is where programs like OM really excel: in developing grit.
Because the most valuable learning takes place when we hit a snag and have to find a way around it, Rosati points out. “It’s the constraints—the roadblocks that instill in you that desire and perseverance to figure it out—to finish. You need to hit a roadblock to be able to learn anything.” Not alone, mind you, but with our team members. Remember the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? We phone a friend.
Spreading the Word
Michelle Dreyfuss and her husband, John Herman, stumbled upon OM in 2001 while looking for creative-thinking activities to complement their second grader, Ellis’s, school experience. John researched some programs and came upon Odyssey of the Mind; it turned out that OM did exist in Mt. Lebanon at Howe Elementary School, and there was a team Ellis could join. He stayed with it all the way through 10th grade. His sisters, Cami and Lydia, also became OMers. Michelle and John devoted their time to outreach activities, spreading the word about OM through speaking in classrooms and at PTA meetings, growing and directing the program in Mt. Lebanon and elsewhere in western Pennsylvania, and are still involved to this day. They serve at the regional level as coaches and resource providers at competitions, working with the newbies, the K-2 level teams.
Coaching for OM, says Michelle, is a great way to support the community. She recommends it to adults looking for a volunteer activity. “We get to witness the amazing things the kids create,” And I love that they are so much prouder (of their work) because they’ve taken full ownership of the program—and made
Fun Facts about OM
- Western Pennsylvania has 130 teams with more than 600 participants, the most
in all six regions of the state.
- More than 25 countries have OM teams.
- Each team contributes one volunteer and two team coaches.
- OM team presentations are limited to a materials budget of approximately $125 to 135.
But Isn’t Odyssey of the Mind just for ‘smart kids’?
No! It’s for all ages, and all levels: After OM, shy students learn that they love to perform; those who prefer using their hands find a passion for building and engineering. OM is for everyone! Non-affiliated schools and homeschooled students are welcome. Visit www.odysseyofthemind.com/faq-2/ for information on joining, programming and to read problems.
Anyone who is—or might be—interested in getting involved with Mt. Lebanon Odyssey should contact them at LeboOdyssey@gmail.com.