Odyssey of the Mind is an international program providing creative problem-solving projects for students from kindergarten through college. Teams are challenged to apply their creativity and problem-solving skills to specified problems. There are no right or wrong answers. Teams are judged solely on creativity and presentations.
Getting to the state finals is an honor for any team. Hosting the state finals is a huge honor for TK.
"It's amazing for TK," said TK OM coordinator Robin Walters. "We've heard from the directors that they like TK because the people here are so welcoming and accommodating and our facilities are so nice."
During the state finals, teams compete at the high school, middle school and Page Elementary before gathering early evening for the awards ceremony in a packed high school gymnasium.
Walters credits the TK food service workers, custodians, and the many volunteers and coaches who make the state finals run smoothly. She also thanks the TK community for being so welcoming and coming out to support the teams and enjoy the competition.
The program at TK has swelled over the years from just one or two teams to 13 teams competing this year at the regional level representing grades from early elementary through high school. Of the 13 teams, 11 were eligible to advance to the state finals. The state finals do not have competitions for early elementary teams and TK had two early elementary teams at the regionals.
TK teams heading to the state finals include two from Page Elementary, four form the middle school and two from the high school.
Annie Halle, TK's first OM Coordinator several years ago, said she's excited for the district and the program.
"I hoped it would be like this," said Halle who started the program at TK with just one or two teams and the help of a few parents. "I knew it could be and I'm glad to see it growing and doing so well. I think TK is doing a great job."
Halle said she recognizes the many benefits OM offers students.
"In today's society there are not a lot of opportunities for our kids to number one, make mistakes and number two, have creative outlets. Everything is so structured and our kids are scheduled to the max. They don't have down time where they can be creative," she said.
She said OM also gives students the chance to fail and realize how much they can learn when something doesn't work the first time.
"As parents, we don't want our children to fail. We forget that they learn more from failing than they do from always being successful," she said.
Walters said OM helps build confidence in students. "They learn to speak in front of people and they learn to come up with different solutions to problems. Everybody comes up with totally different ways of solving the OM problems," she said. "And they are all so creative."
Janis Fitzgerald is also a former TK OM coordinator, who continues helping coach teams today.
The program is so special to her, she set up a foundation through the Thornapple Area Enrichment Foundation to assist TK Odyssey of the Mind teams as well as other arts programs.
"I felt like it (OM) was an area that didn't get a lot of financing," said Fitzgerald on establishing the foundation. "It's crazy for teams that advance to the worlds to have to raise the money they need."
She stays involved with OM today continuing to coach and mentor. Fitzgerald said she knows the program is a success especially when she watches a shy child with little confidence blossom. "That's what gets me really excited about OM," said Fitzgerald.
TK students are also excited about the program and for the upcoming state finals. Teams continue practicing and perfecting their performances as well as practicing spontaneous problems. Two TK teams that advanced all the way to the world finals last year have made it back to the state level this year and hope for return visits to the world.
TKHS sophomore Clair Jansma said going to the world competition was an experience she will never forget.
"It's just so cool," she said. "There are so many kids who have all this creativity in them. It just blows my mind and it's so cool to see what everybody does."
Jansma has been competing in OM for six years. She said OM has made her realize her own abilities.
"I've learned a lot of things I never thought I could do," she said.
Teammate Wyatt Crampton said OM is different from other clubs or groups. "There are no limits to what you do," he said. "We're not confined to everybody doing the same thing."
High school teacher and coach Barb Maring said OM is unique. "It's the how and why of the problem and the process to find a solution. It's not just about getting a right answer," she said.
Maring said she can spot students who have been in OM out in her classrooms almost immediately.
"Their problem-solving skills are so much broader. They look at things differently and it translates well into their classes," she said.
The first OM competition was in 1978 and was founded by Dr. Samuel Micklus at Rowan University in New Jersey when he challenged his industrial design students to use their creativity to solve unique problems, such as building a vehicle without wheels, designing and testing a mechanical pie thrower and making a flotation device that transported them safely across a lake.
In 1980, the first team from outside New Jersey, including the first international teams coming from Canada, participated. At that time the competition was called Olympics of the Mind. The name of the program was changed to Odyssey of the Mind to represent the journey of discovery participants take while using their creativity to solve problems and think outside of the box.
In 2017, more than 825 teams competed in the world finals in East Lansing and the 2018 world finals will be hosted at Iowa State May 23-26. Today, there are OM teams in nearly every state, as well as in about 25 countries. World Finals will include teams from China, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, India and Canada.