Delaware students excelling at ‘Mind’ games

From left, Hannah Lowe, Heidi Knutsen, Mia Moshier and Phoebe Callard, of Girl Scout Troop 1482 in Lewes, display the makeshift set they built to take to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals being held at Michigan State University from May 24 to 27. This will be their fifth year in a row going to the international competition. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

DOVER — This year, Delaware is sending 34 teams to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals taking place at Michigan State University from May 24 to 27. Odyssey of the Mind (OM) is an international educational program that provides competitive, creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college.

The program was started in New Jersey during the 1970s by Rowan University professor Dr. C. Samuel Micklus. According to the organization’s website, he initially challenged his industrial design students to build contraptions like a vehicle without wheels, a mechanical pie thrower or a flotation device that transported them safely across a lake. He went on to create a course called “Creative Problem Solving” and as an extension of that, OM was born in 1978 at their inaugural competition.

Any school, home school or community group in the United States and around 50 other participating countries may join in the competition. There are four divisions ranging from kindergarten to college level. There is no minimum team size, but there is a maximum of seven members. Under the guidance of an adult coach, teams work on their solutions to various selected “problems” throughout the school year and, if they choose, present them in organized competitions in the spring. In addition to that long-term problem, each team during competition must solve a spontaneous problem.

For U.S. teams, the first level of competition is usually within a region of their state. Teams that place in that tournament are invited to compete at the state level, which in Delaware was held in Middletown in March. These championship teams are then invited to participate in the annual OM World Finals, where they compete with teams from countries around the world.

Girl Scout team graduating

Girl Scout Troop 1482 from Lewes will be headed to the OM World Finals for the fifth time in a row this year. The five-member team, also known unofficially as “Team Loophole” for their tendency to seek unorthodox solutions to OM challenges, will be disbanding after this year’s finals because the members are headed off to college. Although it’s all in good fun, Hannah Lowe, a team member, said there are plenty of state teams in their division that are happy to see them go.

Caesar Rodney High School’s team featured, back row, from left: coach Maria Andaya, Isabella Andaya, Jalen Rogers, Ryan Verticchio, Akshay Bachavala and coach Colleen Polanin; front row, from left, Celine Jeun and Alayna Wilson. Participant Tre Myers was not available for the photo. (Submitted photo)

“They call us ‘them damn Girl Scouts,’” she joked. “Our competitors cheered when they heard we were graduating. I think they’re looking forward to not having to compete with us.”

To qualify for the final competition, they beat out five other teams in the High School Division for “Problem 3,” a theatrical performance, and earned a 350 Club Award for the second time. The distinction celebrates teams that receive a top score in every facet of the competition — a perfect score of 350 points.

The team members include Phoebe Callard, Erin Gallagher, Heidi Knutsen, Hannah Lowe and Mia Moshier — all of whom are seniors at Cape Henlopen High except Mia who attends Sussex Academy. Among the five of them, they have 31 years of experience in OM.

Rebecca Lowe, their coach and troop leader, received an award for exceptional leadership in promoting personal development and teamwork through the Odyssey program. She feels that the girls’ journey in the program has made them all stronger as individuals and team members.

The Holy Cross School’s middle school division Odyssey of the Mind team is shown with OMER, the program’s mascot, after their win in the state competition held in Middletown. Top row, from left, are Ashmita De, Abhishek De, Mason Boyles and Tristan O’Leary. Bottom row, from left, are Kayla Tabalon, Sage Sawhney and Ayush Patel. (Submitted photo)

“Odyssey of the Mind is a perfect fit for Girl Scouts,” said Ms. Lowe. “The mission of the Girl Scouts is building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place. As a result, these girls know about working together, supporting each other, and thinking through different ways to solve a problem. OM builds upon these skills and gives these young women an opportunity to showcase their abilities.”

As well as bolstering interpersonal skills, team member Heidi noted that her participation in OM helped guide her college and career aspirations.

“It’s a really cool program because having all these ‘problem’ rules contributes to STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math,” she said.

“I’m planning to go to college for mechanical engineering and a big part of that is having all of these guidelines and seeing how much you can do within them. OM is like that in the sense that it’s a creativity competition — finding innovative ways to be creative withing the boundaries of certain rules.”

Clayton Intermediate School’s team, coached by Denise Vendrick, won second place in Division I.

The World Finals can easily draw up to 800 teams from all over the world. Meeting people from other countries is just one of the many opportunities the program offers participants, they say. Mia recalled an instance where she traded pins — a side hobby within the OM program — with a student from China.

“He was a kid, probably in elementary school, and he didn’t speak a word of English, but he walked right up and was trying to talk to me,” she said. “I realized that he wanted to trade pins, so I said ‘Oh, which do you want?’ He looked through what I had and just pointed. It was so cool, because even though we didn’t speak the same language, we were able to communicate and connect and we were there for the same reason.”

The team has been meeting twice per week to finish construction of their makeshift set and perfect the performance of the theatrical piece they are taking to the final competition. They needed to build a set for under $125 as part of the challenge. (All teams are given spending guidelines depending on their problem.)

“That meant a lot of tin foil, duct tape and cardboard,” said Hannah. “We actually wove plastic bags together to make a hammock that can actually support Heidi.”

The eight-minute skit features a plot about journalists going back in time to discover the inspiration for art from artists like Leonardo da Vinci and sculptor Anna Golubkina.

Smyrna Middle School’s team, coached by Pamela Denny-Griffiths, won second place in Division II.

Although the team will be headed off to college in the fall, they are entertaining the possibility of continuing in the program’s college division and volunteering to help run the competition itself.

Holy Cross School in Dover is sending a team to the world finals as well for winning first place in the middle school division of the same ‘Problem 3’ that the girl scouts pursued.

Their six-person team consisting of fourth- and fifth-graders includes Asmita De, Kayla Tabalon, Mason Boyles, Tristin O’Leary, Ayush Patel and Sage Sawhney. Their coach, Abhishek De, helped encourage the team to polish their performance from their regional competition in early March when they scored 317.49 out of 350. They went on to beat out the five teams they competed with in the state competition, by bettering their score to the tune of 23 points.

“They really did what teams need to do after regionals – improve,” explained Bonnie Blades, one of the state’s Division II and III Odyssey of the Mind judges. “I am so happy for them!”

Delaware director set to retire

Bill Combs, the president of the nonprofit Delaware Creative Activities & Problem Solving (DELCAPS, Inc.),

Bill Combs is honored for his work as director of Delaware’s Odyssey of the Mind program.

coordinates the OM competitions in the state. Like the Girl Scout team, Mr. Combs will be retiring this year. He’s been involved in the program for 10 years — seven as the president. Jacquie Blevins, who has served as the state tournament’s director for the past two years, should be his likely successor, he said.

“She has been shadowing me for the past two years and her transition is pending board approval at our June meeting,” said Mr, Combs.

The following teams won first and second place in the state final competition in March and will advance to Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Michigan later this month:
Catch Us If You Can
Division I: 1st, Linden Hill Elementary, Wilmington; 2nd, Bunker Hill Elementary, Odessa.
Division II: 1st, Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Wilmington; 2nd, Indian River Middle School, Selbyville.
Division III: 1st, Conrad School of Science, Wilmington; 2nd, Charter School of Wilmington
Division 1: 1st, Shields Elementary, Lewes; 2nd, St. Mary Magdalen, Wilmington.
Division II: 1st, Conrad School of Science, Wilmington; 2nd, Smyrna Middle School, Smyrna.
Division III: 1st, Charter School of Wilmington; 2nd, Milford SCHS, Milford.
It’s Time, OMER
Division I: 1st, Heritage Elementary School, Wilmington and Holy Cross School of Dover; 2nd, Milton Elementary School, Milton.
Division II: 1st, P.S. Dupont Middle School, Wilmington; 2nd, Lake Forest Program D, Felton.
Division III: 1st, Girl Scout Troop 1482, Lewes; 2nd, Caesar Rodney High School, Camden Wyoming
Ready, Set, Balsa, Build!
Division I: 1st, North Star Elementary, Hockessin; 2nd, Shields Elementary, Lewes.
Division II: 1st, P.S. Dupont Middle School, Wilmington; 2nd, Alfred G. Waters Middle, Odessa; 3rd and Ranatra Fusca, Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Wilmington.
Division III: 1st, Charter School of Wilmington; 2nd, Charter School of Wilmington.
A Superhero Cliffhanger
Division I: 1st, Brandywine Springs School, Wilmington; 2nd, Clayton Intermediate School, Clayton and Simpson Elementary, Wyoming.
Division II: 1st, St. Mary Magdalen, Wilmington; 2nd, Indian River Middle and P.S. Dupont Middle.
Division III: 1st, Cape Henlopen High, Lewes; 2nd, Indian River High, Selbyville.

Originally getting involved as a coach for his son’s OM team at Meredith Middle School in Middletown, Mr. Combs feels that the benefits students see from the program are truly unique.

“Odyssey is unlike any other program available,” he said. “It allows students to demonstrate their own level of creativity on how to solve a problem where no one solution is a correct one. The program does throw in some parameters that students must integrate into the team’s solution, but it’s more about giving students the freedom to try new and different things to develop a solution that is creative and to try to come up with something that has never been done before. All ideas and every element of the problem solution is to be 100 percent from the minds of the students on the team without adults doing any of the effort.”

Even though he’s on his way out, Mr. Combs noted that the level of interest in OM in the state has been growing steadily. The most recent annual competition was the state’s 37th.

“It’s grown a lot over the past eight years, averaging more than 5 percent annualized growth through 2016-2017 school year,” he said. “We’ve had a record number of teams participating in two of the last three years and we had a record number of school and community group memberships this year. We’re considered a model state program by the national organization given our transition from a single state tournament just eight years ago to four regional tournaments and a state tournament this year.”

Even though the competition is large, Mr. Combs said that Delaware teams have gone on to do well at the world finals — with some standout performances.

“It’s very competitive with upwards of 50-plus teams competing in each problem bracket,” he said. “In 2006, we had an elementary school team from the Indian River School District win first place. Our highest achieving middle school team was an HB DuPont Middle School team, which placed third in 2008. And we had a Wilmington community group team, Barrel of Makers, that finished third and second over the past two years, to be our most successful high school team in Delaware Odyssey history.”

Ever a growing program, Mr. Combs strongly encourages parents and students to think about volunteering or starting a team of their own. Although, he does note the large amount of commitment needed.

“It’s not your typical afterschool activity and runs longer than most sports seasons,” he said. “Getting involved in Odyssey has been the greatest volunteer experience of my life. OM brought my family closer together because we made it an educational experience for the whole family. For children to be successful, parents must be involved in the educational journey. Odyssey is a great way for parents to provide a limited level of support, but a great opportunity for parents to observe what their children are capable of without having to tell them what to do or how to do it.”

As an all-volunteer organization, Mr. Combs notes that one of the biggest challenges is keeping volunteer growth on pace with the growth in program participation — they often need 450 volunteers each year. A core group of volunteers is often happy to take up the responsibility, but they’re always looking for more help.

Anyone interested in serving as a volunteer in any capacity should reach out to Jacquie Blevins by emailing

Milton Elementary School’s team includes, from left, Wiley Owens, Morgan Newcomb, coach Kristin Clifton, Benjamin Clifton, Neely Burris, Oscar Hageman, Sara Dawson and Isaac Hopler.

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