Six Odyssey of the Mind students and their coaches are headed to World Finals after winning division title

PORT ST. LUCIE – A team of six Morningside Elementary students and their two coaches are headed to the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Michigan this month after winning their division title at the Florida State Tournament in April.

Sophia Arias, Mackenzie Carpenter, Jimena Garcia, Gabriele Melo, Jesus Rivera and Brady Young will travel along with their volunteer coaches to Michigan State University in Lansing to compete with their rendition of Opposites Distract, a performance-based problem and solution about a sneaky character that distracts others while trying to take control of anything the team wishes to accomplish.

Mackenzie, 9, has practiced with her school’s Odyssey of the Mind team for three years and said that even though this was her second time to compete at the state level, her team’s Division 1B win of the Opposites Distract competition took her by surprise.

“I thought that we were good, but there were a lot of teams, so I was really surprised and really happy,” she said. “Some of my friends have gone to World, and now so am I.”

The Opposites Distract competition is designed to teach student teams to view the big picture of a problem or difficult situation and come up with a creative solution. The groups were tasked with creating and presenting a humorous skit in which a conniving character successfully drags the other members into silly arguments until the group learns they’ve been intentionally distracted and turn the tables on the distractor. Mackenzie said she really enjoyed building the sets and costumes for the performance-based problem and said the hardest thing was controlling her nerves until her team was called to perform.

“We were the last team of the day to go on,” she emphasized.

Her teammate, Jesús Rivera Nieves, 10, is on his second year with the team and was equally surprised at coming home with the title.

“I felt happy, shocked, blown away, and very excited to get the opportunity to represent Morningside Elementary in Michigan,” he said. “My parents and sister were able to attend, and I was very excited about seeing them there supporting me.”

Jesús said he and his teammates felt they had a good shot at winning the title but admitted watching everyone else perform before they went on didn’t help their confidence level. It did, however, give him some ideas for improvement between now and the opening ceremonies of the World Finals May 22.

“It was a mixture because we knew we had a good chance, but we saw a lot of performances that were very good and that made us doubt ourselves,” he said. “I think we need to improve in our creativity, teamwork and listening to each other.”

Mackenzie’s parents, David and Karen Carpenter, have volunteered with the Morningside Odyssey team for the last four years and served as its coaches for the last two. Ms. Carpenter described the couple’s division of roles as co-coaches of the team.

“Odyssey of the mind is divided into two parts,” she explained. “There is the long-term problem and spontaneous. My husband David worked primarily with the team on the long-term portion, gathering ideas and letting them develop their solution. I start each meeting working with them on spontaneous activities that help spark their creative thinking. Once they start building props and scenery, we both take part in coaching different skills and techniques.”

As part of the team’s winning performance, the team is divided into ground people and sky people who work together to produce stars.

“One day a sneaky character comes into town and makes the two groups turn on one other and causes them to argue,” Ms. Carpenter explained. “In the third argument, the sneaky character is exposed and caught. The two groups realized they have been tricked and decide to work together again. During this performance they were required to come up with an original song, dance and interview.”  

The coach said their team’s win of the state title came as no surprise after witnessing a prior performance in Palm Beach County.

“When we performed at the regional competition in March at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, many in the audience were brought to tears watching them perform,” she said. “As coaches we’ve been watching this performance evolve over time, but it was the reaction from first-time viewers that convinced us that they would do well.”

Morningside Elementary Principal Kathleen Melrose emphasized the cooperative team-building skills the students learn as part of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

“The students learn more than just engineering and performance arts, they learn to cooperate and work together,” she said. “They learn to accept and build on each other’s answers to solve for an open-ended solution.” 

Ms. Melrose acknowledged the roll of the coaches in teaching team members to work independent of outside help, one of Odyssey’s core requirements.

“The students have a great pair of coaches,” she said. “They have supported appropriately and motivated this innovative team, but the team is self-reliant. They completed the required tasks on their own.  Their independence is extremely important: Adult assistance -- or any outside assistance for that matter -- will incur penalty points at the tournament.”

Ms. Carpenter concurred with that assessment, saying her team “has spent countless hours brainstorming ideas for a completed story.”

“Odyssey of the Mind is completely hands-off,” she said. “The team must come up with their own ideas, and all props, costumes, and sets are built strictly by them. Odyssey of the Mind encourages its team members to think creatively as a team, and they are given a synopsis that they alone must interpret and build on to produce a solution. As coaches, we teach them new skills to help them create and build, but they must do everything themselves.”

Ms. Carpenter enjoys watching shy students become more outgoing as they learn to trust in their own abilities.

“It’s so rewarding to watch quiet kids become leaders, to watch self-doubt turn into a performance they are so proud of and watch these individuals become family,” she added. “We couldn’t imagine taking part in any other activity.”

Mackenzie said her favorite part of solving the Opposites Distract problem was “building the sets and costumes.” Jesús agreed, emphasizing the comradery between him and his fellow team members.

“The things that I enjoy most about Odyssey of the Mind were the creativeness of the competition, the fun I had with my team and coaches, meeting new people, and getting to go to new places,” he said.

This year there were four active Odyssey of the Mind teams at Morningside Elementary this year. A team of seven students competed in the World Finals held in Iowa last year, accompanied by instructor Julie Moore.

For more information on Odyssey of the Mind, visit the website at www.odysseyofthemind.com.

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