BATH — Elise Copeland, co-director for Regional School Unit 1’s Odyssey of the Mind Program — the “largest creative problem-solving competition in the world” — couldn’t be more delighted.

Three Odyssey of the Mind teams from Bath will be advancing from State Finals held last Saturday in Biddeford to the World Finals in Iowa in May.

“We had a perfectly wonderful day! Our two Fisher Mitchell teams and one Bath Middle School team all took second place,” she said after last Saturday’s exhilarating event.

First and second team winners are invited to go on to the World Finals, a three-day event that is something like a mini-Olympics, attended by more than 10,000 people with teams competing from all corners of the globe.

“We had a very full day of competition and awards, along with recognition of a retiring board member,” she said.

With barely time to catch her breath, Copeland’s Sunday schedule included hosting the winning coaches in her home for a busy session of World Finals information downloading.

“It’s an opportunity to go over all the paperwork and deadlines, for people to meet, and learn some tips for keeping their teams on task, and how to meet the challenges of fundraising,” she said.

Upwards of 20 teams from around the state will go on to Iowa. Some teams may decline the opportunity, due to travel scheduling, the demands of fundraising, or other issues.

Copeland, an education technician who teaches the “gifted and talented” Gateway program in RSU1, first saw a report on Maine public television about Odyssey in 1996, and was immediately interested.

“It took me a year to muster the courage to coach a team, though,” she said. “My boss at the time was Judie Mansfield, a fourth grade G&T teacher, and I told her about it, and about a year later we started coaching together.”

Mansfield, who still teaches and coaches Odyssey, is co-director with Copeland for the RSU1 program.
Copeland is also one of two state directors for the program, which began 40 years ago at then-Glassboro State College in New Jersey. She and Mansfield offer workshops as well as a two-week Odyssey summer camp for students.

“Problems” to be solved each year are offered in five categories: Vehicle, classics, technical, balsa wood structure and performance.

Each year, the problems are presented with new themes and parameters, with the students’ “solutions” to be presented in the form of an eight-minute performance.

For example, the balsa structure problem always entails building a structure that weighs no more than a half-ounce, and the challenge is to make it strong enough to bear weight. It’s not uncommon for teams to devise a way to support hundreds of pounds.

This year’s problem in this category is called “Animal House,” and it required the structure to be an animal, and for that animal to be fed, with the structure holding the team-created food.

This year’s technical problem involves emojis, and the presentation must take place without spoken dialog. While not worrying about a script might seem an advantage, performing without words presents its own challenges.

Everything — concept, storyline, scripts, costumes, sets construction — must be created by the students, with zero input from the parents, who manage rehearsals, procure building materials, make sure parameters are met, etc.

Other RSU1 schools with Odyssey teams in recent years include Phippsburg Elementary, Woolwich Central, and Bath’s Dike Newell School. Morse High occasionally has teams, but Brunswick and Topsham are currently not seeing any participation in the program.

“One of the biggest challenges with the program is finding parents to coach,” Copeland said. “That’s usually the reason districts might not participate. I tell parents, hey, if you want to see this happen, look in the mirror! It’s a great opportunity, and there is a wonderful camaraderie that develops between parent coaches.”

New coaches receive generous support, with tutorials and workshops and the deep expertise of Copeland and Mansfield.

Bath parent Karen DSilva is in her third year of coaching. Her sons Liam (third grade) and Waylon’s (fifth grade) Fisher Mitchell team will be making a decision soon about going to Iowa. “The kids are stoked. We’ll be having a meeting this week to decide what we’re doing.

“As coaches, it feels like you’re herding cats sometimes, but in the end, they all work together in their own way and pull it off,” DSilva said.

“I can definitely see the benefits of Odyssey in my kids. In the end, they come to the realization that there is value in following through on a project all the way to the end; they realize the devil really is in the details, and how important it is to explore an obvious solution and then go back and try it all again, but now thinking outside the box.”

And what is foremost in her kids’ and their teammates’ minds when they think of Odyssey? Liam offered “problem solving” as his main takeaway, as did fourth-grader Julia Deitrick.

“Problem solving can help you with school work and other things,” she said.

“I like making the sets and costumes and stuff,” Waylon said, while third-grader Gracious Emery said she also thinks foremost of the artistic side of things, along with the “crazy judges” (they get into the spirit with the kids).

Ephraim Burke, also a third-grader, quipped “recycling” with all the enthusiasm of a full believer. Ephraim’s mom, Jill Burke, said teams are strongly encouraged, but not required, to use recycled materials.

“Odyssey offers an opportunity for kids to take risks, to learn about teamwork, and to learn there are no right or wrong answers,” Copeland said. “There might be a better answer, but it doesn’t mean the others are wrong. There are real life lessons here.

“For me, it’s such a delight watching them grow as a team, and finding strength they didn’t know they had.”
If you come across a fundraising bake sale for these Odyssey of the Minds teams, remember that those cookies won’t only tickle your taste buds, but you’ll be helping these kids make their way to what could be a life-chancing experience in Iowa.

For more information on Odyssey of the Mind, contact Elise Copeland at [email protected]