Unionville team tops Odyssey of Mind competition

May. 28, 2013 @ 05:51 PM

A team from Unionville Elementary won this year’s Odyssey of the Mind world championships, held this past weekend in Michigan. 

The team consisted of third-grader Staton Helms, fifth-grader Sam Gunn, fourth-grader Will Gunn, fifth-grader Ian York, fifth-grader Lindsey Smith, fourth-grader Palmer Braswell and fifth-grader Alexis LeBatard. 

In Odyssey of the Mind, teams of no more than seven students are given open-ended problems. Each team must solve the problem with an imaginative, out-of-the-box solution. 

The winning team, coached by Martha and Ken Helms and Kyra Gunn, had to solve the problem, “The email must go through.”

The team had to create and present an original performance that showed messages being sent by email. The sender had to send three emails: one with a return receipt, one with a work of art as an attachment and one that goes through a “spam” filter. Two emails went through a receiver and one went to an offbeat location. Each email had to pass through a central server before reaching its final destination and team members were not allowed to touch the emails while the server was processing the messages. 

The team made spheres from papier mache, which were “thoughts.” Their machine sent thoughts, or ESPmail, through the ether. In their narrative, the machine helped a burglar who was always getting caught. Using mind control, he tried to get other people to steal for him. Unbeknownst to him, a scientist was thwarting his attempts. 

One student, Ian York, used computer code to build a sorter into the machine. It used a color sensor and sorted the email based on color. The sensor sent the spheres down different chutes. 

Team Coordinator Eric Hinson described it as a Rube Goldberg-type machine. 

The teams started meeting in November. They spend their Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in January and February building machines and preparing their presentations, Coach Kyra Gunn said. 

“They spent a lot of long Saturdays,” Hinson said. 

The four teams won the regional competition and placed either first or second at the state level to progress to the world finals. More than 825 teams from 13 different countries and 33 states vied for various titles. 

Unionville Elementary School Principal Sharyn VonCannon struggled to put her excitement to words. 

“(I am) just thrilled beyond measure,” VonCannon said. “Just jumping for joy.”

For her, the victory reflected not only the team, but the quality of the program at Unionville Elementary. The school has been involved with Odyssey of the Mind for 17 years. 

“A lot of people strive to make a high-performing team,” she said. “It’s more than just a good team going forth, but just producing a lot of quality, top-notch teams.”

She said it is also exciting for the community, who rallied around the time by volunteering time and offering donations to send the teams to Michigan for the competition. 

Gunn, who was present at the awards ceremony, said the crowd of 70 erupted in cheers and screaming. 

“They were just so excited,” Gunn said. Some were even shedding tears of joy. 

However, the team wanted to be mindful of the other three teams who either did not know their standings or knew they had not come in first, Gunn said. 

Another team came in fourth, one came in 12th and the final team came in 35th. 

However, the competitions and awards are not the only part of the weekend. Students had numerous chances to meet students from across the world and exchange pins. Gunn said her son made friends with a student from Australia who attended school in Switzerland.

“It’s just non-stop all day,” Gunn said. The students also get to stay in college dormitories, eat int eh college cafeteria and read maps to navigate the campus. 

“There’s just a whole lot of unintentional learning that goes on the whole week,” Gunn said. 

In addition, the students will talk to each other about their presentations and will often watch other school’s performances after speaking with students. 

Gunn noticed that while the kids are aware that it is a competition and are pulling for their school, they are also very supportive of each other and interested in other school’s presentations. 

Hinson said the victory is not just for the one team, but their whole program. 

“This is a success not just for this one team...but shared across all of our teams as a program,” Hinson said. “It’s a program and I want all of our kids to feel like they have a part of that trophy.” 

A big part of the competition is a “spontaneous problem,” where the teams are given a problem and they have to solve it in a set space of time without the coaches. Hinson said they work on those in practice among each time, but discuss them among the entire team. So each student learns from each other, Hinson said. 

The Odyssey of the Mind competition is popular among the students. Tryouts each year attract between 90 kids each year, Hinson said. About eight different judges evaluate the kids in different stations and give the kids scores. They try to mix the teams with students from each grade level, so that they all have some experienced students. 

“You’re looking for kids who are out-of-the-box,” Hinson said. “That can think very quickly, can perform under pressure and are not afraid to stand out.”

He said they look for kids who can push beyond their initial solution for a problem, take risks, speak up and think quickly. Students work to see problems from various angles, which Hinson thinks helps them for the rest of their lives. 

VonCannon’s daughter, now a high school students, participated in the program in elementary school. 

“I see the thought process has followed her,” VonCannon said. “I really do think they learn skills that they take with them for life.” 

The other teams that competed were “It’s How you Look at it,” coached by Nicci Brown and Steve Shank came in fourth. That team consisted of Isabelle Brown, Hudson Shank, Caroline Ogden, Nealy Tarte, Ethan Humphrey, Kendall Martin and Hannah Sell. “Pet Project,” coached by Sam and Cheryl Marcum and Michael Dennehy. That team, which came in 12th, consisted of Sarah Marcum, Jacob Marcum, Patrick Dennehy, Hannah Dennehy, Dottie Simpson, Ashley Caraway and Courtney Collins. “ARTchitectural Musical” came in 35th. The team was coached by Matthew Noonan and Genie Vanderwalt and consisted of Luke Noonan, Doc Farrar, Ryleigh Bennett, Madeline Rushing, Ella Rushing, Maren Canupp and Javier Vanderwalt. 

In addition to Hinson, the program is coordinated by Susan Long.