Everything was going great until the U-Haul arrived.
After months of hard work, the fifth-grade Odyssey of the Mind team from Lang Ranch Elementary School had made it to the World Finals competition. The seven girls on the team had gathered at the school at 3 a.m. May 24 for their flight to Ames, Iowa. For two days, they had been at Iowa State University enjoying the festivities surrounding the competition while some of their parents drove the sets, props and costumes for the skit they would perform to Ames from L.A.
Unfortunately, the Midwest was experiencing some serious rain. On May 26, the team opened the truck to near disaster. “A lot of our stuff was made out of cardboard, so a lot of it got really soggy,” says team member Addison Stolle. Among the soggy items was Stolle’s barracuda costume, which was, ironically, not waterproof.
The Jelly Belly-phant’s wheels were stuck. The jawbreaker prop was “majorly broken” and they didn’t have the tools they’d need to fix it. “It was driving me crazy, and I ended up breaking down crying,” says Alyssa Rice, the stagehand who was “in charge of making all the magic happen.” The sets were also broken and kept falling over.
Quite An Odyssey
The set, props and costumes for the skit had already been through a lot, and the team had been through a lot together. This was their third year of Odyssey of the Mind competition.
In June 2015, at a pool party at coach Katherine Loberg’s home in Thousand Oaks, they looked over this year’s set of challenges in preparation for the first level of competition, the regionals, which would take place in March. They chose a theatrical challenge called “Fur, Fins, Feathers & Friends,” which required them to create and present a humorous skit depicting problem-solving from the perspective of three animals.
The performance could be no more than eight minutes long. It would take them eight months to get ready.
They met every Thursday at school and every Sunday at Loberg’s house. “Normally, on Thursdays we do storyboard and script, and on Sundays we come to the house and build in the garage,” says Stolle.
The girls crafted a play about a mad scientist who is creating a portal to “Candy Land.” The buzzard, giraffe and barracuda she keeps in her lab accidentally pass through the jawbreaker portal and find themselves transformed into candy animals (“candimals”) – a Buzz-Nerd, a Giraffy Taffy and a Gummy Bear-acuda. They have to solve a series of riddles to get back through the portal and save all the world’s animals from being turned into candimals and eaten at Halloween. Fortunately, they meet a Jelly Belly-phant who helps them save the day.
The Odyssey of the Mind competition was created in 1978 by a New Jersey industrial design professor named Sam Micklus. It is designed to teach kids in kindergarten through college creative problem-solving in a fun way.
The problems for the 2015-16 competition challenged kids to build a recycling vehicle that moves without pedaling, create a virtual fishing game, perform an Aesop fable “gone viral,” build a weight-bearing balsa wood structure – or create a skit about problem-solving animals.
Those were the “long-term” problems that teams were allowed to prepare for. Teams are also faced with a spontaneous problem (known among competitors as “the sponts”) at each competition. These require teams to do things such as creating humorous animal rhymes or building structures with toothpicks.
Any school or community organization can participate in Odyssey of the Mind, and for a membership fee of $140 can sponsor five teams. In completing their long-term problems, teams must keep within a budget, which ranges from $125-$145. The goal is to keep costs low and the playing field even. “Realistically, a team could compete for $200 or less,” Loberg says.
Millions of students from all over the world – including teams from Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Siberia, West Africa and practically every state in the U.S. – have competed.
Odyssey of the Mind came to Lang Ranch Elementary in 2014 thanks to school librarian Michele Lauterman. Loberg, who as a high school student made it to the World Finals in 1992, signed on to coach a team. Only two of the 24 teams competing in the L.A. Basin region advance to the state competition, and Loberg’s team made it their first two years competing. For the 2015-16 school year, Lang Ranch had nine teams compete at regionals. Loberg’s team and one other advanced to the state tournament, and Loberg’s team went all the way to the World Finals.
Hot Glue and Duct Tape
Along the way, the girls say they’ve learned how to work together, how to speak out and to compromise, how to make many things with duct tape and to use power tools. They joke that you aren’t truly part of the team until you’ve burned yourself with the hot-glue gun.
It’s clearly a point of pride that the rules require them to solve their problems without help from adults. “We can’t have any parent help,” says team member Emily Merjan, who plays the “just plain evil” mad scientist in the show. “The only people who can help us solve the problem is just the seven of us. So if our coach were to accidentally give us an idea, we can’t use it.”
Constructing sets, props and costumes out of cardboard, PVC pipe and many, many candy wrappers has also forged a bond between the members of this team. “I’m going to be friends with these girls for so long. And it teaches you life lessons that will stick with you forever,” says Lexy Plotkin, who, as Giraffy Taffy, wore a tall cardboard giraffe head and neck ingeniously attached to a bicycle helmet as part of her costume.
Boys and girls, by the way, are allowed to be on teams together. But this team likes its all-girls membership just fine. “Since it’s all girls, we can kind of share our ideas better,” says Alyssa Wood, who plays the mad scientist’s pet buzzard. “I feel like if there were boys on our team, I wouldn’t be able to share my ideas as well.”
These do-it-yourself girls take lots of pride in their work. “It’s so awesome to hear your name called and know that you’re representing yourself, your family, your school, your state at worlds,” says Gracyn Manley, whose Jelly Belly-phant costume was the one that arrived with the broken wheels.
The World Finals
There were so many exciting things about the World Finals. The Lang Ranch team was assigned a “buddy team” from Mexico to hang out with. They stayed in the dorms on campus, and met and traded commemorative Odyssey of the Mind pins with teams from all over the world.
There were fabulous opening ceremonies, parades and a competition just for the team coaches. The girls would emerge from the Spontaneous competition – where they had to construct a tool that would help them hang rings on pegs in a wall several feet away – with a pretty respectable score. And their parents would be waiting to spray them with Silly String, a World Finals tradition.
But they couldn’t perform their skit and finish the competition until they made some repairs. “We had to go down into the basement of the building, with no air conditioning,” says Loberg. “It was incredibly hot, and you had 70 teams split between two classrooms trying to fix their sets. It’s very small. You’re fighting for space.”
Loberg sent two of the moms ahead to scout out space, but then she sent all of the parents away. “I knew how hard it would be, especially when one burst into tears,” Loberg says. “You want to hug them.” But there are judges on site all the time, making sure teams do things on their own.
For four hours, the team pushed past tears and through lots of frustration. At one point, Loberg could see that if the girls just lifted one small piece of fabric, they would be able to figure out how to make one of the repairs they were struggling with. But she couldn’t say a word. “I just kept staring at it, hoping maybe somebody would read my mind,” she says.
And then, the girls figured it out. “They fixed it in ways I didn’t think of, and that’s what’s brilliant about Odyssey,” Loberg says, “when you see them fix it in a different way, and you see that they have brilliant ideas and they did it themselves, and the pride and the confidence it gives them.”
Beyond The Worlds
The Lang Ranch Elementary Odyssey of the Mind team placed 14th among the 70 teams in their division at the World Finals. There were closing ceremonies and a long flight home. And the girls brought back fun memories “of pin trading, meeting people from other countries, our buddy team and the reward of knowing, wow, we did really well,” says Loberg’s daughter Ashlyn.
Ashlyn also brought back memories of her role as narrator (“candy rapper”) for the team’s skit, in a fabulous red dress made, of course, of candy wrappers.
Meanwhile, the problems for the 2016-17 competition are out. The members of the Lang Ranch team are headed to middle school this fall, but plan to stick together and compete again. They’ve already been discussing ideas.
And when it’s time to start, Coach Loberg plans to be ready. “I have to clean out my garage,” she says. “It looks like a hoarder’s paradise with all this cardboard and wheels and PVC.” The girls immediately protest. They think the might need some of those things for their next Odyssey challenge.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.