MIDDLEPORT – In this era of standardized tests and Common Core learning standards, there are pockets of Niagara County where creativity is still being nurtured and, in fact, rewarded.

Seven fifth-graders from Royalton-Hartland Middle School, their families and their substitute coach, Daniel Mault, traveled to the World Finals of the Odyssey of the Mind competition in East Lansing, Mich., three weeks ago.

Held on the campus of Michigan State University, the competition drew thousands of students of all ages from across the country – and from around the world.

“When they got to the 20,000-seat arena in Michigan, the kids just sat looking around in awe,” Mault recalled. “It was like the Olympics with all of these kids from different states and different countries. It was the first time they had ever experienced that level of excitement, and they were a part of that. It was awesome for the kids and meant a lot.”

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition that encourages original and divergent thinking. For each problem they tackle, there is more than one solution. The key is for the students to have fun along the way.

Mault coaches a fourth-grade team at Royalton-Hartland Elementary School and accompanied the fifth-graders to the top competition when their coach, Adam Eschborn, was unable to make the trip. There also is a seventh-grade Roy-Hart team.

The problems offered fall into five categories: mechanical/vehicle, classics, performance, structure and technical performance.

Teams choose a problem, create a solution, then present their solution in a competition against other teams in the same problem and division. Students work in teams of seven under the guidance of a coach and spend months creating solutions to long-term problems. But they come up with the ideas and do all of the work themselves.

Roy-Hart’s team of Abby Ander, Aaron Bacon, Andrew Corser, Michael Huntington, Anna Rickard, William Rickard and Sandy Sparks tackled the problem titled “It’s How You Look at It.” Overall, the students placed 17th out of 50 teams in the World Finals.

The problem was to create and present an original humorous performance that includes two characters who act naturally – to themselves – but seem odd to those around them, Mault said. The students wrote the skit and made their own costumes, scenery, props and equipment, which included a meter indicating the degree of odd/normal behavior.

The Roy-Hart students designed a meter powered by chicken eggs. The eggs, which were weighted, made the scale indicate the level of “oddness” that was being exhibited by the characters. The skill in creating this meter helped the Roy-Hart team travel to the world competition.

In the competitions, teams have 8 minutes to present their long-term solution to the problem and are scored for meeting the requirements of the problem and for creativity in categories specific to the problem. At the competition, teams are also presented a spontaneous problem to solve on-site.

The program particularly appeals to students who are “naturally” creative, as well as students with untapped potential but no outlet for it, according to Professor C. Samuel Micklus, who founded Odyssey of the Mind more than 25 years ago.

The Roy-Hart fifth-graders earned the Ranatra Fusca Award this year at the state competition in Binghamton, which helped propel them to the World Finals. The award’s name is Latin for “water strider,” a reference to an early competition where students were tasked with designing a boat.

Mault, a fourth-grade teacher at Roy-Hart Elementary School in addition to being the team’s substitute coach, said that in the past, students have been chosen for the team at the suggestion of their teachers, or simply by showing interest in joining. But now he is considering starting tryouts.

“I’m looking for kids who are creative, have a spark, are dedicated and can cooperate and have ideas that are out of the box,” he said. “… We don’t have a team in the high school yet, and we’ve been discussing how some of these younger kids continue to have interest in this, but there are not a lot of these types of programs around as they get older. But there’s so much interest in this, and it’s really a fairly inexpensive program to run.”

Fifth-grader Aaron Bacon, 10, who has been involved with the program since third grade, said, “It’s cool that we weren’t just representing Roy-Hart, but we were representing New York State, and it was cool to meet people from other countries.”

“I worked on the skit and plotted out three of the six backgrounds that other kids painted,” he said of his involvement. “… I like being able to meet other people and build things and solve problems.”

His mother, Ann, who accompanied her son to Michigan, said, “I think this is an incredible opportunity for the kids. It’s such a unique program. … It’s quite entertaining to watch these kids all come together, and if we watched the show 15 times, we’d see 15 different shows. … They are really an impressive group of kids, and I mean an impressive group beyond just our school. We have a lot of pride in them as parents.”

Andrew Corser, 10, who joined the team this year, said the competition “was even better than I ever could have imagined. They had a pretty awesome light show. This was my first year, and it was pretty cool. I helped with making the backdrops and painting some scenes. … You need imagination, definitely.”

His grandmother, Jane Corser, a retired librarian for Wilson schools who accompanied him to Michigan, called the program “remarkable.”

“I don’t know why all schools don’t offer it,” she said. “This reflects well on the school and on the teachers.”

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