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Mind games: Five local teams head for World Finals of Odyssey of the Mind

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By Nicole Queen

What could the average adult make with toothpicks, straws, ping-pong balls, rubber bands, plastic forks, trash bags and a roll of tape?

It might be hard to imagine these junk-drawer objects as anything terribly useful. But a young mind can conjure many options with these objects: a miniature building or car, or, when they are pasted onto a painted piece of cardboard, a backdrop for a skit.

Some young minds from South Jeffco have proven highly adept at cooking up extraordinary creations with ordinary objects, leading five local teams to first-place finishes in the regional and state levels of the Odyssey of the Mind competition.

The teams - from Shaffer and Coronado elementary schools, Collegiate Academy, Falcon Bluffs Middle School and open-enrolled students at Lakewood High School - are about to leave for Ames, Iowa, to compete against other equally creative students from around the world May 27-30. While all five teams are competing in different divisions, they all have one thing in common: teamwork.

"Teamwork really determines how far you get," said Falcon Bluffs student Maddie Deutch.

Maddie's team is so well versed in teamwork that the members are almost inseparable.

"You really have to be good friends to be a good team," said Maddie's teammate, Abby Tiell. "We're all friends. We're like family."

For a year, each team spends every weekend and a couple of days during the week planning and creating.

"What's awesome to me," said Ty Wayment, coach of the Lakewood High and Shaffer teams, "is how much time they spend together, and they still like each other. They give up a lot of their free time, and they do it because they love it."

For 25 years, Odyssey of the Mind has hosted competitions in building small vehicles that are required to perform different tasks; or in writing a script and creating costumes and backdrops for a skit that must use certain items or contain specific materials and themes.

The teams of students, supervised by adult coaches, have to conceptualize, build and execute their projects without any help from an adult. That means adults cannot touch a glue stick, hammer a nail or sew a button onto a costume - if they do, the team will receive penalty points.

"It's frustrating, especially for new parents," said Wayment. "To tell them, 'You can't hold that glue gun' ... it can be hard sometimes."

With the World Finals nearing, each team puts double-time into ironing out problems and perfecting the task at hand, but it can be a little stressful at times.

"When you're getting to the point where you're three weeks into it," said Brinda Pumphrey, coach for the Falcon Bluffs team, "the nerves get a little edgy, but they work together."

All of the kids on the five teams agree that participating in Odyssey of the Mind has made them more confident and creative.

"Just because we're little doesn't mean we can't come up with good ideas," said Kelly Erber of the Shaffer team. "You're more creative when you're young. I think the older kids just try to think of certain things, but we're just crazy and really open to lots of things. That's what makes us creative."

The teams' coaches often are stunned at what the kids create.

"I am so amazed at what they come up with sometimes," said Pumphrey. "I would have never thought of the things they do; their minds are so creative. They just come up with amazing ideas that often blow me away. It frequently impresses me with the quality of work they do and the story lines they create ..."

Not only do the kids have to come up with solutions for each category, they are assigned random problem-solving exercises they must complete in minutes.

Each student takes something different away from Odyssey of the Mind, but all ultimately use their gifts to turn junk into something useful and creative.

"I look at everyday materials differently now," said Lakewood team member Cassie Calhan. "Like, I can take a bike and think, 'I can use the wheel for this, the gears for that ...' Everyday materials are totally different in the world of Odyssey of the Mind."

Teams plan fund-raiser

As the World Finals approach, each team has a new conundrum to solve: how to raise $4,000 per team to travel to Iowa. On May 23, the South Jeffco Odyssey of the Mind Teams will host a fund-raiser at the Outback Steakhouse. It's $20 per person for steak or chicken, a side, a salad and a soda, or $60 for chicken fingers and fries. There will be two seating times: 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

To donate or for more information, contact Brinda Pumphrey at LittletonOm@q.com