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Odyssey of the Mind students learn problem-solving skills
Bailey Harris, 9, a fourth-grader at Spout Springs Elementary School, carries a life-sized model of Hermes as his Odyssey of the Mind team sets up for a rehearsal at the school. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Since September, teams of six and seven students from across Hall County have been busy making architectural drawings, constructing scenery and bringing robots to life.

No, it's not some kind of sci-fi movie set they're working on; instead, these kids are expanding their problem-solving skills through the Odyssey of the Mind program, a national competition that has teams working to create a solution to problems like how to support a weight dropped from above or how to tell a story about superstitions while staying within specific parameters.

The national Odyssey of the Mind organization creates five different problems each year, said Joel Cantrell, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at C.W. Davis and sponsor of the Odyssey of the Mind program there.

"Each team decides which problem they will solve and competes in Division I (elementary schools), Division II (middle school) or Division III (high school)," he said.

The students competed at the regional level before moving on to the state level where, on April 4, five Hall County schools placed in seven categories.

Martin Elementary School won second in Shock Waves and sixth in the Teach Yer Creature and Superstition categories; Spout Springs Elementary won fifth place in The Lost Labor of Heracles; Sugar Hill Elementary won seventh in Shock Waves; North Hall Middle won third in The Lost Labor of Heracles and C.W. Davis Middle won second in Shock Waves.

The categories are based on a specific problem that comes with guidelines as to how it must be solved.

For example, for The Lost Labor of Heracles category, Spout Springs Elementary students put together a skit that told the story of Heracles and his labor of cleaning out the Augean stables. Plus, the students were required to add a mythical character to the storyline (they created a "jebcat"), have an animatronic Greek god (they created Eurystheus out of some sheets and a mop head) and they had the whole thing narrated by fourth-grader Ethan Hargrove, 10, playing Michael Jackson. ("It's someone everybody knows," he said.)

Keep in mind this is a team of fourth-graders, and when the competition starts, they have eight minutes to put together their set, which they made themselves, and complete the performance.

"We came up with a poem to connect the jebcat, and the jebcat came from the first letter of our names," said fourth-grader Bailey Harris, 9. Oh, and the jebcat speaks in a British accent, too.

"I've been in all sorts of plays," added fourth-grader Jacob Martin, 9, who plays the jebcat.

"And sometimes he just randomly does it," said his teammate, fourth-grader Amy McDonald, 10, who plays one of two cows in the story.

Kim Carroll, an art teacher at Martin Elementary who oversaw the creative process in solving the Shock Waves category, said there are tryouts for the teams throughout the school. For the Shock Waves problem, students had to construct a balsa wood structure that was no less than 8 inches high and weighed no more than 18 grams - about the size of a soda can. Then, they had to start dropping weights on it.

Martin's structure, it turned out, could hold 760 pounds.

"The builders started last summer. ... They learn about the engineering of things that have lots of support, so they learn about designing things that will support a lot of weight," she said. "They do their drawings and they decide what they think will work best."

The students build prototypes at Flowery Branch High School and videotape them as the weights are dropped on them, later analyzing how the structures broke and how they can be made stronger.

"It's a trial-and-error process. It has to be their design and their decision," Carroll said. "And they're so excited. They get down on their hands and knees to watch it as it breaks."

Davis students competing in Shock Waves had the same problem to solve as Carroll's team at Martin, except they were competing in a different division. Their structure had to take "occasional ‘shocks' from weights being dropped on the structure rather than being placed there," he said. "At the same time the weights are being placed, a skit is being performed around the process."

This is the third year Davis students competed at the state finals, he said.

"Odyssey of the Mind is encouraged by many Hall County schools because of its emphasis on student achievement and creative thinking," Cantrell said.

But for the Spout Springs students telling the tale of Heracles, it was also a lesson in researching ancient Greece and figuring out what life was like before cars, telephones and video games.

"We think it must have been a little harder back then," Martin said. "No electronics," Hargrove added.

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