The Odyssey of the Mind program at Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac is the largest in the state of Maryland. Each year, about 80 students participate.
Next week, the Rhino Team, composed of seven fifth-graders from Bells Mill Elementary School, will board a plane to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, determined to capture victory in the 2016 Odyssey of the Mind (OotM) World Finals competition. This team is attending for the third time in three years — and each year they improved their standing among over 70 international teams. In third grade, they came in 24th; in fourth grade, they were 13th. This year, they are hoping to place among the top six teams — edging out favored competitors from as far away as Singapore and Poland.
According to the OotM website, “OotM is an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Team members apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then bring their solutions to competition on the local, state, and World level. Thousands of teams from throughout the U.S. and from about 25 other countries participate in the program.”
Bells Mill Elementary, thanks to the support of Principal Jerri Oglesby, has the largest OotM program in Maryland, with 80 students participating on nine teams. In the Maryland/DC State Tournament, four of the Bells Mill teams received first or second place trophies with invitations to attend the World Finals.
The Rhino Team (all the Bells Mill teams are named for animals) members are Audrey Benford, Harrison Benford, Ryan Chernoff, Ilayda Dogan, Leah Freisinger, Sophia Hoffmeyer and Junwoo Kim. These students have been on the same team since they were first-graders. Their coaches are Trudi and Dominic Benford.
This year, the team received the Ranatra Fusca award for exceptional creativity, the first time the significant honor has been awarded in Maryland for many years. The judges wrote in their nomination: “This team blew [us] away. Every technical and artistic element was as good as it could possibly be.”
“Our team has worked very hard over the years,” said Dominic Benford. “Trudi and I started as their coaches when these kids were all just 6 years old. We felt it was such a rewarding experience — both for us and for the kids. We have seen such growth in each of them — in their approaches to problem-solving, skill in working as a team and their creativity and free-thinking.”
Parent Rezarta Dogan said, “I have seen such joy in the kids’ faces. They have bonded and formed friendships — and truly learned to work as a team. It’s really cool to watch them.”
This year, the team presented a solution to the problem “Something Fishy” which required the teams to design and operate a technical solution simulating multiple styles of fishing. A Fisher Character worked from a designated area to "catch" three different objects that were outside of that area. The catch was required to be on the move and to include something expected, something unexpected, and a new discovery. The performance also had to include a change of weather and a humorous character that portrayed a potential catch and avoided being caught by the Fisher. They presented their solution in the form of a play. The team’s performance at the Maryland State Tournament on March 12, was judged on the technical content of the team-created mechanisms for moving and catching the fish, as well as elements of the performance including style, creativity, and humor.
The six-month process included the team researching scientific principles for making machines including a pulley system and a hand-cranked piston, creating a realistic surf shack and fishing pier out of recycled pallets and salvaged bamboo, and creating several artful props. All the students were involved in the project, applying their individual strengths to help their team in creating their final project and performance.
Junwoo Kim designed giant taco shells for the production, and also used his skill with power tools to help with the design. Sophia Hoffmeyer and Audrey Benford created a larger-than-life catfish from cardboard, scrap wallpaper, and large amounts of duct tape and hot glue.
Ilayda Dogan used old socks and tights to produce a “Sockness Monster.”
Ryan Chernoff helped design the fish-moving mechanism while Leah Freisinger honed plywood using a Dremel grinder and used her acting skills to play the main character in the performance. A fish-moving mechanism based on a camera slide was created and assembled from scrap wood and PVC pipe by Ilayda Dogan and Audrey Benford.
“I did a lot of the script writing,” said Harrison Benford. “But putting together the bait shack from individual bamboo leaves and cardboard took a lot of time — and we probably burned ourselves on the hot glue gun 60 times.”
The team will spend four days in the dorms at Iowa State. One of the team’s favorite activities is to exchange team pins with the other youths from everywhere in the U.S. as well as from foreign countries. Every team has its own pin — last year’s team pin was a Dragon. Audrey Benford said, “It was one of the most popular — everyone wanted it so bad.”
The students are hoping to continue OotM when they move on to middle school next year. They are each involved in a myriad of activities from swimming to competitive Scrabble, from gymnastics to playing musical instruments — but all are hoping they will be able to stay together as a team and compete again next year in the 2017 OotM World Finals.