Monday, September 21, 2009

Changes to the 2009-2010 Program Guide

The following are highlights of the changes I've found in this year's Program Guide from last year's. Rather than exhaustively cataloging the changes (as was done here) I focused on the changes that would affect how you coach a team.

What is Odyssey of the Mind? (p. 5)
2. Added: "This includes Style enhancements described later in this guide."

3. Added: "Coaches may help teach skills and educate the team on ways of approaching the problem and of evaluating their solution."

Coaching an Odyssey of the Mind Team (p. 7)
Added: "In OotM the coach plays a limited but important role."

Replaced: "teach team members how to open their minds to new ideas, listen to others, and evaluate solutions effectively" with "teach team members how to explore possibilities, listen to others, learn from failures, and evaluate solutions effectively."

Added "teaching them how to solve differences"

Added "Be sure to read and re-read the problem and clarifications. Make sure the team reads them as well and recognizes what is being scored."

Brainstorming (p. 12)
Under "Allow no criticism" added "Present examples of 'wild ideas' that were successful such as walking on the moon."

Checklist for Competing in Long-Term (p. 30)
Changed "Three completed copies of the Style form" to "Four completed copies of the Style form".

Rules That Apply to All Problems.
(5) Clarified interactions with judges during Long-Term and spontaneous: "The judges will only speak to the team members if they feel it is appropriate or is required in the limitations of the problem. In Spontaneous judges will always answer questions.

Added: "The team may not involve the judges in its presentation in any way and any reaction or participation from the judges or audience does not count for score."

Incorporated 2009 rules (8) and (15) into 2010 rule (5).

(18) Safety and damage control, changed the items not allowed list lighter-than-air balloons item to read: "Lighter-than-air balloons (e.g., helium) that are not sufficiently tethered and/or weighed down. That is, those that will float uncontrollably upward are not allowed."

Added the following item to the not allowed list "Liquids that can stain or cause other floor damage".

Exempt items
(4) changed to read: "Jewelry, such as wristwatches, earrings, rings, etc., and street clothes that do not enhance the solution or contribute to a costume. Remember if a team is wearing identical street clothes such as matching shirts, they would count towards cost because they appear to be a uniform, therefore enhancing the solution (see pg. 48)."

Added the following definition (p. 53):

"Human Power - Direct: manipulating the intended object by hand so it functions without any other mechanism; for example: throwing, kicking, blowing, twisting, or turning the object to be moved/manipulated. For example, tossing a ball into a container. Indirect: applying human power to something that directly manipulates the object that in turn moves/is manipulated; for example, hitting a ball with a golf club so it goes into a container. If human power is used to help cause a series of actions to take place in order to make something function that is considered mechanical and not human power; for example, turning a crank that winds a coil that releases an object is considered mechanically powered. Also, turning a crank by hand that is geared to pull back a device similar to a catapult and then releasing it so it moves a ball into a container is considered mechanically powered. This is allowed as long as human energy is not prohibited and the problem does not have a different definition.

Added the following definition (p. 54):

Set up - The time after judges say "Team Begin" that the team uses to set up props. It counts toward the 8-minute time limit. Teams can simultaneously perform while setting up props.

Style Form
Changed to include the requirement of four copies for competition.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Avoiding illness

Your team has a backup plan just in case, but they really don't want to be missing a key team member in competition. How can the team stay healthy to avoid last-minute substitutions? The following are some general principles:

  • Stay home if you're sick.

  • Wash your hands.

  • Avoid touching your face.

  • Sneeze into the bend of your arm.

How can a coach help?

  • Provide easy access to hand washing or sanitizing.

  • Have the team wash or sanitize their hands before every spontaneous practice. For problems that are hands-on or that have a speed-limiting token, they'll avoid spreading germs by handling objects. For those problems that don't require handling objects, you won't be implying it ahead of time by skipping the hand washing.

  • Keep a box of tissues handy. Discard used tissues properly.

  • Send sick team members (or coaches) home. Until they're able to leave, keep the sick member at least 6 feet away from others. If you're sick, you stay home.

  • Reinforce healthy habits with your team. You may be able to reinforce this message using some of the same materials the school uses to teach healthy habits. You can also use the Public Service Announcements on The following is one of the Public Service Announcements:

Friday, May 8, 2009

Selecting ideas - part 1

In a previous post I described a method of idea generation that combined the strengths of both individual and group brainstorming. The result was a a very large set of ideas for a theme from which the team needed to choose one or possibly combine two. My problem was to devise a way to support the team in its decision-making as they sorted through more than 100 ideas.

Based primarily on Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, Principle II: Providing Multiple Means of Action and Expression, and on an idea from Michael Michalko's Thinkertoys, I devised an idea sorting process that combines verbal/auditory, physical/spatial, and visual means of interacting with the set of ideas.

First, before the meeting, I put each of the ideas on a separate sheet of paper. I used yellow because I had lots of 4 x 6 sheets of yellow paper, and I think colored paper worked better than white paper against the light colored floor. Then, at the meeting site I laid out a 6 x 6 foot square on the floor using blue painters' tape. Then I put two tent signs made of construction paper at opposite ends of one side of the square, labeled "Creative" and "Ordinary", and two tent signs at opposite ends of an adjacent side labeled "Useful" and "Not Useful".

Then I briefed the team on the procedure. Each team member, taking turns, would read one of the ideas aloud to the team. The team would respond with a snap evaluation of the idea as creative or ordinary, and useful or not useful. We had already discussed what creativity is, and we used "useful for our Odyssey solution" as the definition of useful. For example, an idea might be very creative, but not useful for the solution for any number of reasons. If the team doesn't have the skills to execute it, if it would take more time than the team has left, or if the idea was just too weird, it got placed more toward the "Not Useful" side of the square. There are degrees of creativity and of usefulness, so each idea was placed not just in one of the four quadrants but also more or less toward the extreme edges of the square. The team helped influence the reader's placement of the idea on the grid: "Right!", "Down!", "Less useful than that idea!".

In the end, I asked the team where on the grid they should look for ideas to evaluate further in order to choose a theme. They chose creative/useful. After some negotiation about which clusters of ideas to include, the team was left with about 15 ideas to put under closer scrutiny, which I'll describe in part 2.

Overall, I think this process was successful. It allowed the team of first and second graders to process over 100 ideas in about an hour and to choose a minority of ideas to look at more closely later. The whole team stayed engaged with the selection process for about half an hour. After that, engagement dwindled so that about half were still engaged at the very end.

I would change a few things the next time I used this system. First, if possible, I would split the session time if needed so that all team members could remain engaged for the entire process. Second, I would use this process earlier in the season to reduce the pressure to complete the activity within one session. We were running up against exhibition dates and the team needed to choose a theme to gain momentum. Third, I would describe the entire idea generation and selection process to the team at the beginning. My thought is that possibly some of the non-useful ideas might not have been added to the pool and so the number that would need to be processed would have been reduced.

I waver on this last point though. Some of the less useful or less creative ideas may have sparked other ideas that the team ended up keeping. Also at the time I couldn't describe the entire process because I hadn't devised it yet.

There is one thing I would not change the next time. As I mentioned, the team ran out of steam after about half the ideas were processed. However, I dont' think it's a good idea to leave the remaining ideas unprocessed. I'm afraid that this would lead to encouraging the team to choose the first good (or good enough) solution in the future and shut down their creative process. It could also marginalize the ideas that were not yet processed, as if something outside the process had indicated that the "right" solution had already been selected. I think sorting through the entire set of ideas in a systematic process provides a good model for moving creative thinking from the realm of a magical spark to the realm of a set of thinking tools. If the team loses momentum without completing the sorting process, I would resume it later and be sure to finish the entire set.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Using Gmail for team communication

My Gmail setup

Sometimes it's best to just start over. That's what I decided to do with my e-mail for Odyssey of the Mind. At the beginning of the season, I created an e-mail account on Gmail specifically for team communications. It has worked out very well.

I wanted to keep Odyssey e-mail separate from my business and other existing personal e-mail accounts simply so that nothing would get lost or overlooked. Gmail does a very good job of keeping notes organized by conversation, and sending e-mail to defined groups is ridiculously easy.

Managing contacts

Here's how I set up my contacts. Each parent address is labeled with the parent's full name and the child's first name. For example "Joe and Sue Smith (Scott)". When I type either the last name or the first name of the child in the To field, matching addresses are suggested automatically, making communication about a specific child very easy.

All of the parents' addresses are in a group I called "OotM primary". They're also in a group I called "OotM Extended" which also includes other interested parties such as the sponsoring teacher at the school. Mail to all parents or all interested parties is as easy as starting to type "OotM" and choosing one of the suggested groups.

Notification of new mail

Ordinarily I find e-mail notification too distracting. But, sometimes messages are time-sensitive, and I've found that the volume of Odyssey mail I receive through my Gmail account is low enough that the interruptions from notification are OK. (By the way, I haven't mentioned yet that my Gmail account has been 100% spam-free!)

Google offers a Gmail Notifier for Windows, but unfortunately it is blocked through my employer's firewall. Being a certified geek, I found another solution. I already used a news reader to gather interesting stories from RSS feeds. It turns out that you can also turn your Gmail into an RSS feed (with a password required for access). I use FeedReader and subscribe to the feed Enter your user name and password into FeedReader when setting up the feed. (You can also try formatting the feed as if your newsreader doesn't support passwords through its interface.)

The default notification window for Feedreader goes away after a while. If you're away from your computer when new mail comes in to your Gmail account, you might not see the notification. But, you can set the notification for your Gmail feed in Feedreader to have added importance. This makes the notification window "sticky" and it will remain displayed on your screen until you dismiss it. To do this, right-click the feed and select Edit smartfeed. In the pane that opens, select Show notification with added importance.

Preparing for next season

Gmail organizes your mail using labels. You can clean up your Inbox and prepare for next season by labeling and archiving your mail from this season. Google provides a tutorial on how to use labels in Gmail.

Monday, January 19, 2009


It's cheap. It's big. It's flat. It's ubiquitous at Odyssey tournaments. It's cardboard! How can your team find enough cardboard to craft their corrugated creation? Mr. McGroovy's has suggestions on how to find free refrigerator boxes. He also has tips on painting and detailing cardboard.

Note: Mr. McGroovy's sells rivets for fastening sheets of cardboard together. I have no experience with the product. His site has links to product reviews.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What is creativity?

When we think of defining creativity we naturally think of having novel ideas. Some creativity gurus would add that the ideas should be actually useful. I think that that addition points toward something vital to creativity: creating. No doubt a great many novel and useful ideas eventually die of neglect, and the world is the poorer for it. Without the ability to bring an idea to life by crafting its form and following it through to completion, ideas that might otherwise be recognized as creative instead come to be seen as mere daydreams, or, if there are abortive efforts toward achievement, failures.

Imagination is only the beginning.

Some sort of craft must always be applied to the idea to bring it to life, whether it be hewn from marble, composed in verse, painted on canvas with oils, or told to a receptive hearer. But craft alone is not proof of creativity. A factory robot can precisely craft a screw, a chair leg, or a particular shade of purple paint. But nobody would argue that the robot is being creative. Neither is the skilled craftsman who is executing someone else's design necessarily being creative himself. Yet without craft, the idea never takes shape.

It is still possible, even with adequate skill being applied to the idea, that it never comes to fruition due to lack of follow-through. Even with a brilliant idea and exquisite craftsmanship, sometimes life gets in the way. Things happen; unforeseen changes are needed. Without the ability to change course, a ship will almost certainly strike a hazard and founder. The same happens to creative endeavors without proper execution. The ability to achieve the goal often requires careful management of the boring details.

Imagine. Craft. Achieve.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, the ability to do all three well is rarely found within one individual. Many try to go it alone, and end up with only daydreams or failures. We need the humility to recognize our limitations, to set aside our egos, and to work collaboratively with others who are in some respect superior to ourselves. We need to cooperate.

The great thing about Odyssey of the Mind is that it gives kids the chance to put all four vital ingredients of creativity together:
Imagine. Craft. Achieve. Cooperate.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso

The mind is very good at using symbols to help us understand our world. Actually, the mind prefers symbols. Strongly. Let me give a few examples.

As children, we learned that the number two meant, well, two. We could then use that internal symbol as the mind's shorthand for two of anything. Two fingers, two cookies. Later we added the numeral 2 as an external representation of the mind's symbol. We learned words as symbols for a certain idea. We learned our letters and the speech sounds that were associated with each letter or letter group. Through use, written words became external symbols for a group of speech sounds, and for the internal symbol representing a concept. Later we could put words together in a sentence as a symbolic expression of a complete thought from the mind.

The mind constructs symbols from everything we experience. Think for a moment of the concept of a friend. Your mind has constructed a complex symbol within itself of what a friend is - what you expect from a friendship, what you expect of yourself in friendship - and has applied that symbol to some of the people in your life. The same goes for dog, school, father, mother, teacher, self.

Once they're formed, the mind clings jealously to its symbols. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Once the mind has formed its symbol of something, it's hard to change that symbol. When confronted with something that conflicts with an existing symbol, the mind would rather put a square peg in a round hole than change its idea of what a hole can be. This has its advantages. We handle language wonderfully. We recognize objects in our world and interact with them appropriately in most cases. We see the face of a friend and smile.

But, the mind's preference for its existing symbols is also a weakness. When presented with a new challenge, we tend to handle it based the same way we've handled other challenges. We notice what we expect to notice in a situation, based on the symbols created from our previous experiences, and our new experiences tend to reinforce our existing symbols. We get into a rut.

Sometimes we get into trouble when we act according to our preconceived ideas. We misjudge the distance of our left big toe to the nearest object and stub it against a bedpost. We misjudge people and treat them inappropriately. We misjudge our abilities and limit ourselves.

Because of this weakness, there is a need to develop the ability to break our symbols. To do so, we need to purposfully look at things from fresh viewpoints to generate novel ideas - ideas that don't fit the mold.

What symbols do you have that might need to be broken? (For example: Am I a creative person? What is the job of a parent? Who is my child? What is my occupation? How do I get to the store?)

Think about the quote from Picasso in the title of this post. What first impressions, and lasting symbols, are you making in your child? Which internal symbols do you want your child to carry through to adulthood?