Siara Chavez wasn’t the only student on her Flowery Branch High School team that was surprised to take first place at the 39th annual Odyssey of the Mind World Finals held at Iowa State University May 23-26.
It’s a stiff competition that challenges students to be innovative creators and inventors using science, technology, engineering and math education.
According to its website, “Odyssey of the Mind has (more than 800) teams competing from throughout the United States and in 13 other countries including Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.”
The all-girls FBHS team — Lydia Ebbs, Bella Carmosino, Kennedy Turpin, Lia Urbanek, Kailyn Neal, Chavez and Ainsley Ray — won the gold medal in front of an arena-sized audience for an engineering challenge called “Emoji, Speak for Yourself.”
According to the challenge description, “Three-dimensional emojis will be used to communicate the life story of a once famous, but now forgotten, emoji. Teams will create a performance where the emojis demonstrate special functions like growing, turning into a team member and changing into a different emoji. Performances will also include a choreographed dance, a technical representation of texting, and sounds to enhance the performance. The twist? No spoken language is allowed.”
A rising sophomore, Chavez said the team was a little disappointed in its performance after winning a state and regional event to advance to the world championship.
What the students invented, at least for the uninitiated, might resemble the cartoons of Rube Goldberg machines, which perform simple tasks in an indirect and complicated manner.
But what the FBHS Odyssey team created was as complex as it gets with a $145 budget limit that required using recycled materials and natural substances, like water and air.
The team built a text machine powered by water that pushed compressed air through syringes, which then triggered levers and gears that revealed an image of a termite and the word “SIEGE.”
It was a joke that went off well despite the team’s concerns.
Chavez said the few hiccups they experienced in their demonstration either went unnoticed by the judges or were resolved quickly enough not to hurt their score.
In retrospect, “We were beating ourselves up,” Chavez said.
So when they were announced as first-place winners, the disbelief took some time to wear off.
“A couple of us were in shock,” said Lydia Ebbs, a rising junior.
“These machines are our babies,” Ebbs said, adding that sometimes things don’t work quite right. “We actually cried after we performed.”
But tears of a different, joyful kind came when the gold medal was slipped over their necks like Olympic champions.
The team also created a “beautiful day” emoji, with Styrofoam as its core, which could transform into a “fear” emoji.
Ebbs said winning the world championship in their division felt like coming full circle.
Ebbs first began competing in Odyssey in the fourth grade. She changed teams along the way until reuniting with some of her original “cast mates.”
Aaron Turpin, assistant superintendent of technology with Hall County Schools who coaches the FBHS Odyssey team with his wife, Darcie, said the team has come close to winning in recent years.
But this year’s team had a special chemistry, and everything finally came together.
As a coach, Turpin said he jokes that he and his wife are there to “turn on the lights and order pizza.”
“It’s definitely a supervisory role,” he added.
The competition has strict rules that require teams receive no outside help or influence, be it from teachers, parents or their peers.
As an analogy, Turpin described how a baseball team has a hitting coach, a base-running coach, a fielding coach and others who specialize in a particular facet of the game.
But the Odyssey team members are left alone to figure it out themselves.
In fact, Turpin said, the students are individually interviewed by the competition judges to determine if their designs are unique and created independently.
The teamwork was exceptional, and these students’ creative abilities will help them “flourish in age of automation,” Turpin said.
“They have the ability to look at problems and issues multidimensionally,” he added.