An Ahwatukee school has fielded a team in next week’s national competition for Odyssey of the Mind, a 40-year-old international competition that requires team members to work together at length to solve a predefined, long-term problem using STEM and the arts.
The team was one of three seven-member groups of children in grades 1 through 5 at Keystone Montessori that won its division in regional and state competitions.
The seven youngsters are headed for the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Michigan State University May 22-25.
“I was really surprised to win at State as all of us on our team were in our first year in Odyssey so we had no experience,” said Yan-Ru Cao, a third grader. “But I think we have a good chance at world.”
Added third-grader Breanna Sadowski: “I am very excited. I worked really hard with my teammates. I feel like this is a really good experience for me and other kids.”
The creative problem-solving Odyssey of the Mind involves students from kindergarten through college in various divisions. It was founded in New Jersey in 1978 when it was originally known as “Olympics of the Mind.”
This month’s world finals is the culmination of the year of Odyssey of the Mind competitions and attracts teams from throughout the U.S., and approximately 25 other countries.
“I think we’ve practiced a lot so I think we’ve got it,” exclaimed teammate Oliver Grandmont.
Their reaction from the other team members was one of excitement and, for some, surprise at their achievement.
“I was surprised we won State because I thought our Spontaneous Problem was pretty good but not enough to win,” said Min Yi Cao, at age 7, is the youngest team member and the only first grader. He is the younger brother of Yan-Ru Cao.
“I hope we can win first or second place,” the youngster added. “I’m so excited because this is my first time and the team’s first time to go to the World Finals. I am going to see people from different countries that I’ve never seen before and hear languages that I have never heard before.”
For coaches Jess Morales Ruán and David Sadowski winning the first two levels was great but not the goal.
“I don’t do this for them to win, I look at the longer picture,” said Ruán who teaches fifth grade gifted classes at Hartford Sylvia Encinas in the Chandler Unified School District.
“The Odyssey of the Mind competitions opens their eyes to see its okay to take risks and take challenges and it helps them as they evolve into a more independent person,” said Morales Ruán.
He started judging events with Odyssey of the Mind in 1991 while employed as a foreign currency banker in Boston.
His daughter Susan Morales Vega, a third grader at Keystone, was a member of one of the three original teams from Keystone Montessori competing at regionals this year.
Morales Ruán said he has a great deal of respect for Odyssey of the Mind.
“I became enamored with the program from the very first time I judged in Massachusetts. I recognized all the significant and crucial skills the team members were developing over time as participants in solving these problems: team work, problem solving, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, perseverance, etc.,” he said, adding:
“While thinking and working on a solution for their chosen problem, they couldn’t get any outside assistance: not even suggestions or ideas. If they did get any help, they’d be penalized. Thus, someone who coaches a team must be good at sitting on their hands, assisting the team to brainstorm, asking open-ended questions, and helping them look for ways to gather supplies.”
Morales Ruan explained each team’s solution for their problem-solving involves a skit with props and a vehicle creation that cannot exceed a total of $145.
“This prevents wealthier school teams from spending an unlimited amount of money on elaborate solutions,” he explained. “That’s another reason why I really like this program: no matter the socioeconomic status, it creates a fair and even playing field for all teams.”
The three Keystone Montessori teams spent months after school meeting after school with their two coaches.
“The program puts out five problems at the end of August consisting of a vehicle problem, a technical problem, a Classics problem, a structure problem and a theatrics problem,” Morales Ruan said, adding that the finals competition focuses on the vehicle problem.
The vehicle problem requires the team to design and build a vehicle and create the propulsion method. They then perform an original skit to showcase their vehicle. Their presentation combines STEM activities with a dose of the arts.
“Basically, the team of seven students come together to solve one of the five problems, and they have until the beginning of March to do so,” Morales Ruan said, adding:
“The solution must be presented in an eight-minute skit format. They’re judged by the creativity of their solution; they can get up to 200 points for the problem solution and 50 points for style.”
A creative twist awaits the team and is worth 100 additional points.
“On the day of competition, the team is given an on-the-spot problem called Spontaneous Problem. They don’t know what type of problem they’ll get until they walk into a room and are told by the judges. It may either be a verbal, hands-on, or verbal hands-on problem,” he explained, adding:
“Only five of the seven members are allowed to participate. The typical problem gives them either a one or two minutes to think or discuss it together, and about five minutes to solve. Once they leave the room, they’re not allowed to discuss it with each other, the coach or anyone else.”
That has some of the kids a bit nervous.
“We were really nervous about our Spontaneous Problem,” admitted Yan-Ru Cao. “We practiced 10 times before state and we placed first in Spontaneous. Practicing Spontaneous is my favorite part because the questions were always very bizarre and I like replying to them.”
For their prepared skit presentation for the world finals, the Keystone Montessori team chose the transportation problem, called “Omer to the Rescue, Again.”
In this problem, Omer and Sidekick travel to different places with a suitcase that holds all of the parts of their creation, the Omer-mobile.
At the competition, OMER and Sidekick assemble and then ride their created vehicle functioning in different ways to save the day.
Between attempts, the vehicle is disassembled, placed back in the suitcase, taken to a different area where it is reassembled and driven again.
In the Keystone Montessori team’s problem-solving skit, everything takes place in New York’s Central Park Zoo, and includes a chess game with the zookeeper.
“I really enjoyed working with a team to build our vehicle,” said Oliver Grandmont, noting that challenge required the vehicle to be no more than 27 inches long and 62 inches in total length and width and height.
Morales Ruán recalled he’d watched amazed and a bit nervously at the beginning of the year as his daughter’s team swelled into three separate Odyssey of the Mind teams.
“Initially, I was overseeing my daughter’s team but the kids kept on coming. Thankfully, other parents pitched in to help,” he said.
“I encouraged those kids who were interested to recruit their own team members. The only guidance I give them when selecting members is to think of individuals who they know will persevere, are creative and get along with others.”
He said this team going to the World Finals is diverse.
“The team is made up of one first grader, two second graders, three third graders and one fourth grader; five boys and two girls,” he said.
“At times it wasn’t easy due to their age and maturity difference, but once they were together for such a long time, they knew when to take breaks, and who had particular skills. What is unique about this team is their international and cultural make-up: German, Chinese American, African/Jewish American, and Polish American.”
Laura Hertzler, Keystone Montessori Admissions and Assistant Head of School, praised the team for their perseverance and efforts working together.
“We’re excited for our students to have this opportunity to showcase their hard work and talents at the World Finals,” she said, adding:
“With the guidance of the parent volunteers, they have honed their presentation and collaborative skills to become a successful and cohesive team.”
Parents of team members are also readying for the upcoming trip to the World Finals.
Cathy Huang, a hardware architect in the IT industry, and ASU electrical engineering professor Kevin Cao, parents of the two brothers on the team, are among them.
“Both of us are extremely proud of our two boys and the team going to the final, to get this exposure at world stage at this young age,” said Huang. “This is going to be an experience of a lifetime.”
Christina Sadowski concurred.
“It is such a fantastic opportunity for the kids to participate in a global competition,” said Christina.
She is heading to the finals with daughter Breanna, husband and coach David Sadowski, a principal engineer at Honeywell, and their younger daughter Elizabeth.
“We can’t wait to meet teams from far off locations and get to know them. The global competition fosters teamwork and shows the kids that all teammates have value, and that diversity adds to creativity and innovation,” said Christina, an IT manager for Collins Aerospace.
“Most of our team speaks Spanish in addition to English, and some even know a third language, so we’re looking forward to practicing our Spanish, French, Chinese, etc with our new friends.”
“And I hope to learn what other children did to get to World Finals,” enthused Breanna Sadowski. “I’m only 9 and I hope to do this again!”
Keystone Montessori team members preparing for the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals are fourth grader Sofia Moore; third graders Breanna Sadowski, Yan-Ru Cao, and Oliver Grandmont; second grade students Liam Fong and Luis Haeussler; and first grader Min-Yi Cao.