While not a hotbed of tourism, Ames, Iowa will soon play host to hundreds of creative students from around the world.
Students from kindergarten through college will set out for the city of 53,000 to compete in the World Finals of the Odyssey of the Mind, an international educational and creative problem-solving competition.
Two local teams, including seven students from Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston and six students from Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, made it to the World Finals by placing in the state competition at Newport News, Va. two weeks ago.
The Hunters Woods team — Stephen Banghart, Sadie Belt, Ria Bhatia, Gabriela Driscoll, Dana Horton-Geer, Keeley McLaughlin and Michael Yuan — placed second in states, which earned them a birth in the World Finals.
The Rachel Carson team — Ava Driscoll, Shawn Estrada, Dharanish Gollamudi, Steven Howard, Alice Li and Madeleine Reeve — placed first.
“It’s such a great experience for these kids,” said Eugenia Sirgo-Driscoll, a co-coach for both teams. “It brings out so much confidence in the kids.”
The competition attracts thousands of teams from many countries. This year’s Finals will include teams from the U.S. as well as Canada, China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Poland, Singapore, and Uzbekistan. But the competition is unlike any other.
“Odyssey of the Mind is not a college bowl or a competition about knowledge. It’s all about creativity,” according to the organization’s Web page.
“It’s all kid driven,” said Sirgo-Driscoll, adding that students learn a variety of invaluable life skills without even noticing.
AS A RULE, students create and build every aspect of their project, from ideas to costumes. “We have to make everything on our own,” said Samantha Chamberlin, a member of a team from Hunters Woods that won a regional competition.
Chamberlin’s team had a pretty open-ended assignment. “We had to create a skit about a bloke who lives in the jungle and has to help animals. But he also has to convince humans that he can talk to animals,” said Rebecca Henenlotter, another member of the team.
Their run ended at states where they competed against six other middle school teams. But the competition isn’t all about winning, said Samantha, a sixth grader who has been competing since third grade. Samantha, who played a giraffe, added that her favorite part was making the costumes.
THE OTHER TEAM from Hunters Woods, made up of third, fourth and fifth graders, which is heading to the World Finals in May, also had a very open-ended problem. They had to make a skit that includes at least one scene from Ancient Egypt.
Dana Horton-Geer, a member of the team, described their winning skit this way: “We came up with a half restaurant and half ancient Egyptian temple called ‘Burger Pharoah’ that sells camel burgers.”
Instead of a drive-thru, Dana said, the camel burger joint has a “camel thru.” In the skit, two time travelers go back in time to visit the restaurant, which they had assumed was a museum.
“They comment on how they got everything wrong,” said Dana, a third grader.
Teams also practice for a "spontaneous" project, a part of the competition in which students demonstrate their improvisational skills by responding to word problems the day of the competition.
While the students spend much of the school year preparing their skits and practicing for the spontaneous component, they don’t mind the hard work. “It’s fun,” said Dana. “We get to do pretty much anything we want.
The real difficulty remains with the parents and coaches. “It’s hard as a parent to keep your mouth shut,” said Sirgo-Driscoll. “But we couldn’t come up with half of this stuff anyway.”