March 3, 2024

Kid Geniuses

Two sets of students — from Traverse City’s Central Grade School and Crystal Lake Elementary in Benzonia  — prepare to outsmart, outwit, and out-create 250+ Odyssey of the Mind teams from around the world.
By Ross Boissoneau | May 5, 2018

So when should one start preparing for the job market? Maybe it’s never too early — though that’s not necessarily the motivation for two groups of elementary students. Teams from both Traverse City’s Central Grade and Crystal Lake Elementary in Benzonia have made to the highest level of the Odyssey of the Mind competition: its 2018 world championships, held May 23–26 this year at Iowa State University.

But even if they’re not consciously charting a career path, using their young minds and creativity means to solve problems gives them a leg up for a lifetime, explains Pam Gombert, the Odyssey of the Mind association director for Michigan.

Odyssey of the Mind problems challenge students in a variety of ways: Teams might have to design mechanical dinosaurs, build working vehicles, put a twist on classic artworks, or turn Pandora’s Box into a video game. All OM solutions require students to perform, not just the sciences, but the arts as well, whether it’s set-building, costume-making, creating props, acting, singing, or playing an instrument. 

The Odyssey of the Mind program was founded by Dr. C. Samuel Micklus, an instructor at Rowan University in New Jersey. He’d challenged his industrial design students at Rowan to use their creativity to solve unique problems like building a vehicle without wheels, designing and testing a mechanical pie thrower, and making a flotation device that transported them safely across a lake.

Teachers and students at nearby secondary schools asked to be included in such challenges. In 1978 Micklus created problems for middle and high schools in New Jersey, and Odyssey of the Mind was born. In 1980 the first teams from outside of New Jersey participated, including teams from Canada. It’s now become the largest creative problem-solving competition in the world.

Today there are five areas from which the students can choose their problem: Vehicle, Technical, Classics, Structure and Performance. The team from Central Grade in Traverse City decided to work on a problem from the classics. “We create a problem to make a skit based on a classic children’s book, such as ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’” said Shanna Girrbach, who coaches the team. “We chose ‘Peter Pan.’” 

Girrbach got involved when her son, Gabe, decided to participate as a first-grader at Eastern Elementary. In fact, that’s where most of the team originally hails from, though the majority now attend the TAG (Talented and Gifted) program at Central Grade.

The students focus on a dispute about an aspect of the story, and then the characters are interviewed. One aspect of the competition that almost threw the team was a requirement that there be a witness to the proceedings, and they didn’t find out until the eve of the state competition that it could not be a person. “We had to change everything the day before,” Girrbach said. Thinking quickly, the team opted to choose Peter’s shadow as the witness.

The group wasn’t sure how well they had done with their skit. “I thought they were probably somewhere between seventh and 11th,” said Girrbach. Their saving grace was the second part of the competition, which is a spontaneous reaction to judges’ questions. There, the coach isn’t even in the room — just the kids.

“We get a problem and have a minute of think time, then three or four minutes to respond,” said Gabe Girrbach. Only five of the seven team members can participate in the spontaneous portion of the competition, while the other two sit and observe. The team chooses ahead of time which students will and which will not be participate, based on whether the problem is verbal or hands-on. “I’m part of the verbal group, not the hands-on,” he said.

Gabe Girrbach said that, based on its experience, the team thought it would do well enough to go to the state competition — but moving on after that was questionable, at best. “We were expecting to go to state. We thought we might make it to worlds, but it was a long shot,” he said. “It was kind of a surprise.”

He and his teammates were jubilant at the prospect of moving on to the world championships. “It was really exciting when I heard we made it to worlds,” said Cady Madion, who is in her first year on the team.

Her friend Isabel Espinoza, like Gabe Girrbach, has been on the team since first grade and is now in fifth grade. “I love it every year,” she said. The two are among the three girls on the team. Shanna Girrbach said when the team started it team was all boys, but in the years since it’s been more evenly split.

They are not the only students from the region who have the opportunity to move on. A team from Crystal Lake Elementary in Benzonia (pictured) also qualified for the World Championships, participating in the “Stellar Hangout” problem. The team needed to create a story about an alien hangout on another planet. It chose a sports theme to solve the problem, which included a 3D treasure map, an alien puppet, unique space food and entertainment. 

While this is the first time this team will be going to Worlds, this is actually coach Karen Zickert’s third time. She previously went when first her son’s and then her daughter’s teams qualified, and lauded the program for what it teaches students. “I’ve been with OM seven or eight years now. The students gain confidence, they’re not afraid to try and fail and try again,” she said.

Gombert said the fact the program has been ongoing for four decades gives it additional credibility. “This is our 40th year as an international organization. We were doing STEM and STEAM before they were buzzwords.”

And yes, it is an international organization, and this is the world championships. That means the students from Traverse City will be meeting and competing against students from Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as students from across the U.S. “Poland, Germany, China, Korea, Japan – there are 250 to 350 teams,” said Gombert, noting that the final qualifying competitions have not yet been held everywhere. 

Whether driving or flying, the trip is not inexpensive. Various means of raising money for the two groups include things like a silent auction, ice cream social, car wash, and online fundraisers. 

Organizers point to various benefits that are a part of the experience, from becoming comfortable speaking in public and doing independent study to artistic expression. More importantly, according to the promoters, students learn that it is worth taking risks and that there are methods they can use to increase the likelihood of the success in their risk-taking.

There’s hardware as well. At World Finals, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place teams receive medals and trophies at an awards ceremony in front of all the attendees. Teams placing 4th, 5th and 6th stand and are recognized when announced. 

Most important are the learning opportunities, which Gombert said go far beyond simply winning or losing. “I’m not big on competition. I always ask [the participants], ‘Did you have fun? Did you learn something? Did you grow as a person? Did you grow as a team?’ I end with team. That’s what it’s about. When you grow up and work, you won’t always be friends, but you still have to work together.”

That said, Gombert said the competitive aspect has rewards. “There is also competition. There are winners and losers. That’s a life lesson as well. We don’t win everything.”


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