Rowe Elementary School students perform their 'Odyssey of the Mind' sketch and dance party in front of their technical project.
Rowe Elementary School students perform their 'Odyssey of the Mind' sketch and dance party in front of their technical project. From left to right: Corran Redon, Emmett Walsh, Chiara Riali, Maggie Fleming, Elliott Schmitt, Sam Richard, (and not pictured, Mia O'Leary). (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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For a program in its first year, the Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School’s Odyssey of the Mind program has already “exceeded expectations.” 

“It wasn’t even a thought that they wouldn’t win,” said Steph Walsh, a co-coach of the team and treasurer for the Rowe parent-teacher organization, about the group of fourth and fifth graders. The seven students began their path to the finals with their victory at the state Odyssey of the Mind competition in March and have set their sights on the next goal, with a trip to the World Finals at Michigan State University on May 24 through the 27th.

Odyssey of the Mind, or OM, is an academic competition developed in 1978 and run by a company called Creative Competitions, Inc. Adopted in public schools throughout the U.S., it is a creative problem-solving competition for elementary, middle and high school students, including STEM and performance components to showcase the work. Participating students are tasked with coming up with a solution for one of five “long-term problems” which they work toward throughout the year. The other piece of the competition is solving a spontaneous problem with no preparation, which students work on together. Both culminating in a final score from judges.

The team of students from Rowe successfully ran through their performance at their practice last week where they showcased their solution, an invention crafted of plywood and pulley systems, which is required to complete four separate actions to crack and fry an egg.

In the latest practice, their invention worked even better than in their state win, Walsh noted, with all four actions having been completed. Only three of the four actions were successful at their state win in March.

Fourth-grader Sam Richard reflected on that improvement. 

“We were sad that our fourth action failed [in March] but we won because of our teamwork!” Richard told the Phoenix.

Their practice in late April wasn’t short on laughter. Students bounced between painting and chatting, with the occasional zig-zag out into the front yard. Collaboration was a highlight for many of the students, including Chiara Reali, who said working with others has been an arena that Odyssey of the Mind has helped her improve.

Riali said she would sometimes struggle in group settings, but has been able to work on it through Odyssey of the Mind and with the help of her teammates.

In total, 21 students across three teams participated in the program at Rowe this year. Two of the teams qualified for the finals, but only the first-place team will pursue the journey to Michigan.

Jason Wheeler, association director for Maine Odyssey of the Mind, said it’s great to have a Portland team back in the running at the finals. It’s the first time a Portland school has featured in the tournament’s finals since 2017. Maine had 69 teams across 33 schools participating in total this year.

What makes the program special, according to Wheeler, is the multi-faceted nature of how it approaches learning. 

“The kids that are attracted to robotics, engineering and math have exposure to acting, to music, to art,” Wheeler said. “The opposite is [also] true, kids who tend to gravitate towards the arts find themselves learning how to build, to wire or to code.”

Students are fundraising for transportation, housing, food and registration to participate in the tournament. That fundraiser is ongoing as the finals dates quickly approach, with the team more than halfway toward a $7,500 goal. They have a pasta dinner set for May 19, at which they plan to share a video of their project in action.

A crucial piece of Odyssey of the Mind is that the work is done entirely by the students. Coaches provide guidance and ask questions, but everything should come from the students, from writing the script to using the saws and power drills. 

Too much assistance from the coaches can even result in penalties from the judges, co-coach Adam Schmitt said.

“It’s not the Pinewood Derby where the dad is making the car. The finished product is really from the kids,” Schmitt added.

According to Schmitt and Walsh, the goal is for Rowe’s team to be a benchmark for expanding Odyssey of the Mind to more Portland schools.

For this Rowe team, it’s onward and upward to the finals at the end of the month. They’re aiming for the top, shooting for first or second. 

“Anything that’s not past third,” fourth-grader Maggie Fleming said.  

 

 

 

 

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