Odyssey of the Mind team heading for World Finals

Get across the river without getting wet. This was the basis of one of the first ever Odyssey of the Mind challenges given to university students by OM founder Dr. C. Samuel Nicklus (or simply, Dr. Sam to competitors). The problems always urged students to find a creative solution and to take an outside the box approach to problem solving. Build a vehicle without wheels. Design and create a mechanical pie thrower. Since the seventies, Odyssey of the Mind pushes students to be more creative, and has grown in size to include teams and competitors from countries around the world.

Here in Darien, a group of students have distinguished themselves in competition in a very short time. Hindley School fourth graders Caitlin Davidson,John Lazzara, Nicky Lucas, Rajiv Pujara, CJ Schorr, Lauren Zhang, and third grader Maya Pujara represent the town in division one. The team is coached by Elizabeth Lazzara, although she says that the coaching is actually very hands off.

“The kids do everything themselves. It’s all their own original thought,” said Lazzara. There is a rule against assistance from outside the team when solving problems, and the team takes it so seriously that Lazzara said that the team even told her they did not want help setting up their schedule.

The team was born only in the last two years. Lazzara and her son had been in Florida for family reasons for a large part of the year, and the school John attended in Florida had a team. “When we came back, we wanted to continue with Odyssey of the Mind,” Lazzara said, and the team was born.

The team initially had trouble finding a sponsor, with even the school system and boy scouts unable to help. “Someone at the boy scouts suggested we ask the VFW, and within 48 hours they said they would sponsor us,” Lazzara said, and VFW Post 6933 became the team sponsor.

This is only the second year for the team, who frankly did not expect to make it all the way to World Finals.

Teams are given a choice of five long term problems for which they must find a solution. The problem selected by the local team was titled “A Superhero Cliffhanger,” and was described to teams as follows: “Creativity is being taken away from the world, and it is up to Odyssey teams to rescue it! Teams will create and present a humorous performance about an unexpected superhero that encounters three different situations where it must save creativity in some way. The superhero will change appearance when it displays its superpowers and go back to blending in with society when not. The performance will also include a clumsy sidekick, a nemesis character, a choreographed battle, and a cliffhanger ending.” In addition, the team is given a problem the day of the tournament, which had to do with distracting a dragon so the treasure behind the dragon could be reached.

The team performed their solution on March 18th at a CTOM tournament. Lazzara explained that the team did not even actually stay for the medal ceremony at the end, after an exhausting day, thinking that there was no way they could have won. It was not until the next day that the team learned they actually finished in 2nd place. “The team scored a nearly perfect 14.5 out of a possible 15.0 points for humor in their performance.  They really had the judges laughing,” Lazzara added. Their finish has won them a place in the World Finals in East Lansing, MI at the end of May. 825 teams from around the world will be travelling to these World Finals to compete.

The students themselves have grown to love the style of problem solving that Odyssey of the Mind is all about. “Some kids are smart because they pay attention in class or maybe they were just born being smart,” said fourth grader John Lazzara, “In Odyssey of the Mind, you don’t need brains to do anything. Nothing has to be technical or complicated. You practice being creative.” Teammate Lauren Zhang said, “This program has been a huge help to understanding others’ points of view, thinking from different angles, and building up enough teamwork.” The emphasis on creativity and teamwork is a welcome approach to learning for the team members. “None of us could have gotten to World Finals by ourselves. It was clearly a huge team effort,” added John Lazzara.

Coach Lazzara hopes the success of the team will attract more to the program. Not only participants, but coaches well. Lazzara said the level of interest among students is quite high, but teams are limited to between five and seven members. More coaches are needed so that more teams can be formed for all levels of competition. Odyssey of the Mind has programs and problems for students in kindergarten all the way through college bound seniors. Any interested parent, teacher, or volunteer should reach out to Elizabeth Lazzara at [email protected] for more information about getting involved.

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