• Lou Killeffer

The Kids Are All Right! Odyssey of the Mind & the Future of Innovation


I spent last Saturday in New Haven assisting a workshop for Odyssey of the Mind (OM) teams exploring a variety of tools and materials as they approach their 2017 Problems.

OM is a creative problem-solving competition for students from kindergarten through high school. Teams work together for months to solve a predefined problem through theatrical performance, construction, and design and then present their solution, and spontaneous solutions to a problem they haven’t seen before, in a day long tournament.

Here’s why OM is such an inspiring and instructive investment in the future of innovation.

OM believes “by tapping into creativity, and imaginative paths to problem-solving, students develop skills that provide them the ability to solve problems, great and small, to last a lifetime”. OM promotes creativity by “challenging teams to solve divergent problems, i.e., those with more than one solution. And by working in teams, through activities like brainstorming and role-playing participants learn:

  • Teamwork

  • An appreciation and understanding of others, and

  • That a group is a more powerful thinking force than an individual

While clearly fundamental, anyone active in innovation will readily recognize these essentials skills as foundational to the pursuit and process of successful innovation. Imagine the power of learning and applying these truths as children, and adopting them as habits a decade before beginning your career in genetics, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology !

Teams compete in four divisions

  • Primary (K-2)

  • Grades 3-5

  • Grades 6-8

  • Grades 9-12

Teams from thirty-eight states and fifteen countries begin addressing their Problems in October, culminating in State Tournaments in March, with winners advancing to the World Finals in May.

The 5 OM Problems

Teams of five to seven students work together under the guidance of adult coaches to solve one of several new problems presented every year.

Teams may choose from either Technical or Performance driven Problems, each of which has some required element. Their solutions are ultimately judged on how they’ve addressed the Problem in addition to an array of Style and Spontaneous elements in interaction with the Judges.

Each Problem carries a cost limit so teams work within a budget and use everyday materials they can find at home, or in the trash, or recycling bin.

And of course the students themselves do all of the work: every idea, every word in a script, every prop, device and contraption must come from the team of students!

The Problems are elegantly simple and remarkably challenging. For example, in the Technical Problems (Problems 1, 2 & 4) teams must design and create a vehicle, a structure, or other device. One year this resulted in a Panda Bear robot designed and built by a team from China.

As another example, in the “balsa problem”, a team must design and build a structure only 8 inches tall and weighing no more than 18 grams (that’s the weight of three nickels), out of nothing but balsa wood and glue. The final structures are then evaluated at the competition, at least in part, by how much weight they can sustain. One spectacular solution supported 350 pounds!!

Tools & Materials

Our task Saturday was to encourage creative thinking and new possibilities by introducing a wide array of tools and materials, including:

  • Dewalt screw guns

  • A power drill with a chock and bits

  • Duck Tape

  • A hand saw

  • A coping saw

  • Some hack saws

  • A hot glue gun

  • A power jig saw

  • A mitre box

  • A carpenter’s rule (the only item that provoked, “Hey, my Dad has one of these what do you do with it?”

  • Wire ties

  • PVC piping

  • Foam core board

  • Cardboard from a refrigerator box

  • Spray paint

  • 1/8-inch plywood pieces

  • Wooden lath and boards

  • Sheet rock screws

  • A 9-volt battery

  • Foam tubing

  • Wires and wiring

  • A small electric motor

  • A series of on/off switches

By the end of each hour session all the kids in three competing teams had gained hands-on experience with the purpose and safe operation of virtually all of these tools. In the main, these were 9 year olds, and while bright and polite, they were all, at least to me, regular, run of the mill kids in appearance and demeanor. Nothing special at all - until we brought them and the tools and materials together. The response then was immediate and contagious. And even while some were initially fearful, of either the sounds of the power tools or the flying sawdust, in the end everyone was completely engaged. Some of them literally created working motorized gizmos as they progressed through our stations adding materials and functionality to their “expressions” as they went. It was an amazing experience and a proof of Oliver Wendell Holmes' observation that: “A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Connecticut Odyssey of the Mind (CTOM)

The 36th Annual Connecticut Odyssey of the Mind Tournament will be held at Southern Connecticut State University https://www.southernct.edu March 18, 2017; and the Worlds at Michigan State University https://msu.edu May 24-27.

So, when was the last time you and your team approached a new problem creatively? One that went well beyond your routine responsibilities; had a critical due date with a distinctly judgmental audience; requiring tools and materials most if not all of you had never seen before? How well did you respond - and how well did you compete?

Are you and your team as open to new ideas and challenges as my audience Saturday? Are you all as creative, adaptable and innovative as these children?

If you’d like to learn more about CTOM, donate to a truly wonderful cause, or change a child’s or your own life by volunteering, you’ll find much more here http://ctom.org

#OdysseyoftheMind #SouthernConnecticutStateUniversity #MichiganStateUniversity #OM #CTOM

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