A group of West Pine Middle students has proven this year that the key element of any scholastic science and engineering program is the ingenuity of the students themselves.
Much like each team of students at the beginning of the school year, West Pine Elementary and Middle schools’ Odyssey of the Mind teams got started at square one back in 2012. Part science project, part theatrical skit, the program requires students to model an engineering problem in an eight-minute routine complete with a narrative, costumes, poetry and song.
Odyssey of the Mind came to Moore County with Kim Paller, whose children were involved in it as their Florida school’s outlet for academically gifted students.
West Pine parents Andy Wellener and Laura Goodman jumped on board with their families, and within a couple of years they were bringing in top placing from state-level competitions and holding their own at the World Finals –– despite being a primarily volunteer-run program.
Students aren’t provided with high-tech devices, and items scavenged from local junkyards can prove as useful as any computer or robot.
“It lets the kids do all of the creating. If a kid says I want to build a tree out of paper or trash or something, they have to do it all. They have to test it and see if it works. If it doesn't work they have to come up with a solution. They have to work together,” said Paller.
“It’s very, very creative. They can say they want to build something out of two-by-fours and then they have to learn how to cut wood, drill and saw. So they learn practical stuff along the way.”
At long last, the West Pine Middle eighth grade team reunited outside the school this week to celebrate placing second in their division at the Virtual World Finals in May. The worldwide event usually draws more than 900 teams from 20 nations.
Anna Kathryn Foster, Connor Cuthrell, Cooper Ogden, Elle Wadas, Jackson Locklear, Sanem Cobb, and Thomas Mann teamed up to secure the highest-ever World Finals placing by a Moore County Schools team. Their coaches were Tim Theis and Michelle Cuthrell.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic came about a week after the team won their division at
the North Carolina Eastern Regional competition. The statewide tournament was cancelled completely. So, rather than travelling to Iowa State University for the World Finals, top-placing regional teams had the option of sending video of their project for World-level judging.
“We were going to do a homemade water wheel to generate stuff, we were going to do a whole bunch of modifications and COVID killed all our practices,” said Connor. “So at that point we just submitted what we had. We could have done a little bit better, but we had to do what we had to do.”
The Odyssey of the Mind organization held a virtual awards ceremony this summer. The team convened via Zoom to watch, but were prepared for an unspectacular result. A team from Pinecrest also competed in the World Finals, placing 14th in their division.
Each year, Odyssey of the Mind teams are presented with a handful of potential “long-term problems” to dedicate themselves to solving. “Net Working,” their problem of choice last year, tasked them with creating characters who work to keep the world connected as information technology systems do.
“You can pick which problem you want out of three or four problems, and you have to take that problem and figure out a way to solve it creatively –– not just any way you normally would,” said Sanem. “You do it and you add skits into it, with puns and jokes and machinery that you build by yourself. You can’t have any help.”
By way of story, the elements of their project represented the flow of creativity connecting all students who have competed in Odyssey of the Mind competitions since the 1970s.
“We had to represent different types of messaging getting across to different locations,” said Elle.
“We literally did elements: water, air and electricity. Water would push the ping-pong ball, the air blew it across and the electromagnet flung it to the other side.”
The problem required teams to check off a series of boxes in their presentations: information transmission, pop-up advertisements and malware –– and, presciently enough, an “anti-virus hero.”
In the end result, students came up with a system of chain reactions that propelled the ball around it –– through a pipe, through the air, and down a water spout –– without user intervention.
“We had to do a lot of programming for that because we couldn't get it right. It took us all the way up to the competition,” said Connor.
“Water has actually almost never been used in Odyssey of the Mind. If you spill it you get a 20-point penalty and you have to clean it up afterwards, which is annoying. Nobody ever uses water because there’s so many things that can go wrong, but we just wanted to take the challenge.”
Controlling the aquatic element of the project proved to be the most difficult task, and stretched the team’s patience with the “if at first you don’t succeed” part of the engineering process to its limits.
“I think we gave up on water like six times,” Thomas said. “First of all we had to get it at the right angle so it would flow fast enough. That took a while. It was difficult to keep it from spilling, and connecting all these pipes we had to run a tube from a fish tank pump.”
One of the requirements of the Odyssey program is that all ideas, ways, means and materials come from the students themselves.
“You really just ask them ‘How could it be better. What could you do to make this better?” Paller said. “Then they one-up each other and then they go to Worlds.”