Odyssey of the Mind Tournament Challenges Students to Let Off STEAM

UC Riverside to host state tourney Saturday, March 28 for more than 1,000 ‘OMers’ and their families

California Odyssey of the Mind team preparing to compete at the state tournament.

California Odyssey of the Mind team preparing to compete at the state tournament.

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) may be the new darling in education acronyms these days, but challenging young students to do something creative and fun with those skills has been the mission of Odyssey of the Mind for more than 30 years.

For the uninitiated, Odyssey of the Mind is a gloriously chaotic contest where teams of 5 to 7 students (ages kindergarten to college) have eight minutes to set up and perform their solution to a challenging problem. Their adult coaches can help them decipher the four to five pages of rules and give them instruction in using tools, but they can provide no other assistance.

California’s nine regional tournaments started in February—the Inland Empire’s regional contest was March 7 in Palm Springs—but the state tournament, with some 200 teams and more than 1,000 competitors and their families—will converge at UC Riverside on Saturday, March 28.

How challenging is the contest? Check out this year’s problems:

  • Design and build some kind of vehicle that includes its own track system, so the vehicle can make a short journey with multiple stops and obstacles without touching the floor.
  • Design and build rubber-band-powered devices to complete various tasks, then build in technical failures for the devices that are overcome during the performance.
  • Create and perform a multi-level video game based on the story of Pandora’s Box, that includes a power meter to monitor the characters’ “health.”
  • Design and build a balsa wood structure that can weigh no more than 18 grams, but can hold as much weight as possible, and releases five marbles while it’s being pressed by the “crusher board.” (Note: Previous winners have held more than 1,000 pounds!)
  • Create a silent movie with at least one villain committing three acts of villainy, using only music made by a team-created instrument and artfully displayed subtitles to convey the story.

Oh, and after they perform their first problem, the competition requires the teams to solve another mystery problem later in the contest, with only a few minutes to think about and improvise their performance/solution.

“The problems they solve are quite amazing; really, I’m intimidated by them,” said LaRae Lundgren, associate vice chancellor of student affairs and enrollment services at UC Riverside, “To have that kind of intellectual curiosity and engagement on campus will be wonderful. These are very high-achieving students and we’d love to have those students interested in Riverside as a campus when they’re ready to apply to a university.”

California Odyssey of the Mind team preparing to compete at the state tournament.

California Odyssey of the Mind team preparing to compete at the state tournament.

Of course, that’s part of OM’s design, hosting its tournaments on university campuses to build college awareness with young students, said Lynn Larsen, associate dean of Brandman University’s School of Education and Odyssey of the Mind’s volunteer state director. Indeed, Larsen and her husband, Paul Larsen, a biochemistry professor at UCR, were thrilled last year when they learned that incoming UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox had hosted the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals when he was provost at Michigan State University.

“Before he’d even stepped foot on campus as chancellor, Paul contacted him and said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about the possibility of hosting the state OM tournament at UCR,’ and he was completely on board,” Larsen said.

“We’ll basically be taking over UCR on Saturday, March 28. All the dining facilities in the HUB will be open for participants….the Highlander Dance Team and Bagpipe Band will play at the closing ceremonies, the UCR mascots are going to be posing for pictures but the neatest thing, the main reason my husband and I wanted host this on campus, is that it provides a chance for the OM kids and their families to experience life at a university. UCR is providing UC admissions and financial aid workshops for parents, and campus tours so the students can see what UCR has to offer. Besides all the fun, amazing things going on, we’re so excited for parents and students to find out more information about higher education.”

The Larsens themselves caught the fever in college, when they were childless grad students who volunteered to be OM judges. They were so impressed they vowed to one day get their own children involved. Today, their twins, Hannah and Zachary, are seniors at Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, and seasoned competitors, with four state championships and World Finals behind them. At their last competition at the World Finals in 2013, their team finished in ninth place, out of some 800 teams from 26 countries.

They’ll help at the state tournament this year and they’re working with OM’s community service branch, Odyssey Angels, to design gift bags with creative activities for families staying at Ronald McDonald Houses. But as busy seniors, Larsen said they opted not to have a team this year so they could focus on a different problem: choosing which college to attend out of the many where they’ve been accepted. And she credits OM for helping to make them so college worthy.

“When kids participate in this program it’s a life-changing process,” said Larsen. “It taps into so many things we’ve lost in the schools, such as the arts, team work, problem solving and opportunities for highly creative kids to express themselves. The more creatively they interpret their problems, the better. We’re always looking for that moment when the judges say, ‘I wouldn’t have thought of that,’ or ‘I can’t believe they came up with that!’”

Media Contact


Tel: (951) 827-2495
E-mail: kris.lovekin@ucr.edu
Twitter: krislovekin

Additional Contacts

Lynn Larsen
Tel: 951-697-0111
E-mail: calomerdirector@yahoo.com

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