The teams work for months.  A team member has an idea so huge that she cannot sit down.  She gestures wildly and pantomimes what it will look like in action.  That sparks the next kid to stand up with an add-on he just thought of, and soon the whole team is laughing and shouting over each other as the plan starts to come together.  The ideas get more and more off the wall, and before you know it, the kids have collapsed in giggles, totally cracking themselves up.

Creativity is the name of the game in Odyssey of the Mind, a worldwide competition in divergent problem solving skills.  Teams from across the U.S. and around the world choose from a list of problems to solve and present their solutions at regional and state tournaments.  The top teams head to the worldwide competition in May each year.  Teams can choose to make a vehicle, build a balsa wood structure, create a skit, or engineer gadgets.

The team had to create a silent movie, so they chose to do make-up and costumes to look like they are on black and white film.
The team had to create a silent movie, so they chose to do make-up and costumes to look like they are on black and white film.

Odyssey of the Mind is all about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math), a vital component in preparing our students for careers in the Information Age.  Teams who build vehicles learn about propulsion methods and basic machines.  The structure builders have to understand basic physics and the limits of their materials.  (One of the balsa wood and glue structures that won at Georgia State Finals this year held over 1,000 pounds before the judges ran out of weights to stack on it.)  The performance problem teams must make their own sets and costumes and are always required to have one element that is engineered in some way.  All of the components of every problem must fit into a team created story, so they all have a visual art and performance art part of the solution for the judges to score.

Girls flock to Odyssey of the Mind, and from my unscientific observations at Georgia competitions, they make up at least half of the competitors.  Girls love this program, which is fabulous because it is a great introduction for girls to STEAM.

Waiting in the wings for their cue.
Waiting in the wings for their cue.

I was curious why Odyssey of the Mind would be attractive to a large segment of girls when other STEM activities, like robotics, do not attract as many.  I went straight to the source and asked the girls on my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind team from last school year, and their answers surprised me.

My daughter, Abby, loves that the competitions attract other kids who are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.  The problem solutions are infinite and bound only by the creativity of the kids solving them, and the kids themselves thrive on the challenge.  She likes breaking the problems apart and coming up with solutions to the individual pieces and then figuring out how to stitch them back together in a way that makes sense.

The social, teamwork aspect was what drew in her friend, Emily.  Their team formed when a group of friends got together and asked their school to sponsor them in the competition.  Meetings were a fun way for the kids to spend time together being creative and silly.  Emily is not interested in engineering and building stuff, but she enjoyed the storytelling component and the visual art of makeup and costumes to make the story come together.

EmilyRosa thinks girls like Odyssey of the Mind because it is not considered a “boy thing” or a “girl thing,” and the word she used to describe it was “open.”  She said girls do not always think they will be accepted in activities like robotics.  Like Emily and Abby, she also liked the artistic and performance aspect of the competition.  It was fun telling a story and building useful things.

One thing Rosa said to me caught my attention and made me pause.  She said, “When we are little, boys are given robots and girls are given princesses and unicorns.”  I think what she is saying here is the stereotypes about STEM are taking hold earlier than we think.

I talked about this with a friend who spent her career in IT and often found herself one of only a handful of women in that role in her company.  She agreed with Rosa.  Jeanna’s love of all things computer began when her parents bought her brother a computer.  He was not all that interested in it, but she enjoyed learning how to use it and program it.  (To be fair to the parents of our generation, home computers were new in the 1980s and early 1990s when we grew up, and not many homes had them to begin with.  It would never have occurred to me to want one, although my brother had one.)

Chicken props made from latex gloves.
Chicken props made from latex gloves.

So how do we introduce STEM to girls earlier?  We gave Abby non-traditional toys when she was little.  One year we gave her a Thomas the Train set for Christmas.  If you are not familiar with Thomas the Train (where have you been?), the engines have names and faces, stories and personalities.  There are a whole slew of books and videos where the engines have adventures.

Abby and I would set up the track, she would connect the train cars, and they would travel around the track for about a minute and a half.  For the next half hour or so, the engines would ride around in the stroller, go to the doctor, and have play dates.  In other words, she played with them like dolls.

We gave the exact same train set to my son when he came along.  Daniel stacked up stuff on the track for the engines to mow down, and they had some spectacular crashes.  Two kids, same parents, same toy, different play styles.  In my family at least, the kids played with them in ways that were traditional to their genders.

We have become more sensitive to the messages we are giving girls at a young age about their career and life options.  Remember the talking Barbie that said, “Math is hard”?  There was a righteous and warranted uproar, and that product left the market quickly.  However, it sounds like we still need to work harder to find ways to introduce girls to STEM concepts that are more interesting to them and the ways they like to play.

The Director and the Villan
The Villain and the Director

That is where Odyssey of the Mind comes in big time.  Children as young as kindergarten can participate, and many schools include Odyssey of the Mind as part of their curriculum.  It truly is a fantastic program.

If your school does not have an Odyssey of the Mind program, it is easy to start one.  At our elementary school, parents run the program with support from staff.  Parents coach the teams and get them ready for competition.  Our principal, librarian, counselor, and teachers help by being judges on competition day.  At the middle school, the kids do most of the work with a teacher coaching and parents helping with administrative stuff.

You do not need to go through your school to have a team.  At competition, we see homeschool teams and community teams registered through a church or community center.

The Georgia Odyssey of the Mind website is the best place to go to get information on how to start a team.  You will want to do it soon to give your teams plenty of time to develop their problem solution.  We have started as late as January, but that was too hectic.  You and your kids will enjoy the process more the more time you give yourself.

I hope you see you at competition this year!

The team and their coach, Theresa Allen.
Back Row L-R:  Emily, Rosa, Abby, Marcos;  Front Row L-R:  Thomas, Coach Theresa Allen, David




Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.  She geeks out at Odyssey of the Mind competitions almost as much as the kids do.

Photos by Tracy Williams