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Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Iowa State University was a wonderful and unique experience that I will always cherish. When our team first arrived at the dorms after a full day of travelling, we acquainted ourselves with the Polish teams that were rooming next to us – it was exciting to meet international students from the very beginning!

I shared a room with my friend and fellow senior on the team, Erin Dittus. Since we are both heading off to college this fall, dorm life was a really good test run for both of us. The dining halls were always chaotic and extremely crowded. We ate next to teams from California, Canada, China, and also our fellow team representing Virginia! You could hear the clamor of various languages while eating; however, we did our best to remain focused on the task at hand. We ran through our script numerous times before our actual long-term problem solving competition. Our team's nervous energy ran so high throughout the competition.

We loaded Katya's Mom's mini-van (which she drove up over 16 hours!) with our props to competition site. We came across a team from Hong Kong that had just finished their long term performance and was deconstructing their props. Their props resembled the animated creatures at Disney World and were beautifully and intricately assembled. The craftsmanship and attention to detail sent shockwaves through our team as we prepared for costumes and makeup. I could see the nerves creep up on my teammates' faces. We spent the rest of the time rehearsing and preparing for our performance. When we got on stage ready to perform our skit, we saw many of the other Virginia teams from other problems and divisions, who had come out to support us! We all felt a deep camaraderie with one another. When we performed our edgy and racy skit (we definitely pushed the envelope) we received gasps, laughs, and smiles as the judges reacted to our solution for the long term problem. At the conclusion of the performance, all of us embraced in an impromptu group hug in finishing this journey that started so many months ago, with countless hours, weekends, and holidays working together.

After our performance, we stayed back to watch a few of our competitors, including teams from Iowa and North Carolina. We were lucky enough to watch the team that won the world championships and were amazed at their props, script, and overall acting.

We spent the next few days proudly representing South County High School and the State of Virginia. Every team had pins that they would trade with other teams. The pins typically represented the area that they were from such as palm trees for Florida. Our state had mythology themed pins and the Medusa pin was one of the most coveted pins at the competition. Other pins in high demand ranged from Hamilton themed pins to any of the international pins. My teammates and I spent hours and hours trading with other teams while simultaneously meeting creative kids from around the World.

This experience was extra special for me because I had been to states numerous times in the past but we had always fallen just short of world finals. Ten years of participating in Odyssey of the Mind from my Halley E.S. days to South County Middle School with Coach John Kleim (shout out to Andrew, Liam, John, Brady & Sawyer!) and I made it! I was thrilled to take this "Odyssey" with my Mom, who was our amazing Coach, and my younger brother, Valmik, and have this shared experience with them.

Our team truly felt the support of the South County community who raised over $3000 to pay for the team's registration & lodging fees. We felt very proud to represent our community and State!

Editor’s Note:

About 850 teams represented their area in the largest creative problem solving program in the world. The Odyssey of the Mind 39th World Finals was held this past Memorial day weekend at Iowa State University with teams competing from China, Hong Kong, Great Britain as well as all over the United States. The SoCo Odyssey team of Simran Rai, Erin Dittus, Siena Martin, Valmik Rai, Harrison Ponczak and Katya Martino was the first team from South County to ever make World Finals. The team received their state medals in Newport News where they were congratulated by the superintendent of Newport News schools. At World Finals, South County High School received 18th place out of 53 competing teams in their problem division!! Congratulations!

In addition, an all-girls team from Silverbrook elementary school also represented Virginia at World Finals for the younger age group! Students from Silverbrook performed their twist on the classic tale, Peter Pan, solving the Odyssey of the Mind Long-Term Problem entitled "Classics.....Mockumentary! Seriously?" Taking on the roles of screenwriter, set and prop creators, costume and makeup artists, and the very actresses starring in their skit, this elementary school team of all girls wowed the judges with their creative approach to the problem. Congratulations to Silverbrook teammates Gianna Albanese (Grade 4), Aditi Bhat (Grade 4), Reese Brodrick (Grade 4), Quinn Cummings (Grade 4), Taylor Forrester (Grade 2), Sienna Mersinger (Grade 5) and Abby Nielsen (Grade 4), along with their coaches, Melanie Cummings and Julia Lokitis, worked hard for months preparing for the regional and then state competition, and they are focuses on perfecting their performance and sharpening their minds for the world competition. Silverbrook would like to thank local business, Board & Brush, for its support!

Odyssey of the Mind is a volunteer-run organization that conducts the largest creative problem solving competition in the world, with International Festivals held this year in China, Germany and Ivory Coast. The program celebrates "the journey of discovery participants take while using their creativity and natural abilities to solve the program's challenging problems." More information about the organization and the competitions can be found at https://www.odysseyofthemind.com/.

A team from Ronald Reagan Middle School had an extremely successful trip to the 2018 Odyssey of the Mind World finals this year. The tournament, hailed as the world’s largest creative solving competition, was held from May 23-26 at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. There, more than 835 elementary, middle school, high school and college teams from around the world worked together to solve complex problems before a panel of judges, according to a news release.

The Reagan team finished in second place at the finals, winning silver medals for the team and a trophy for the school.

Teams competed in one of five long-term problems and also participated in a spontaneous competition where teams use creativity and teamwork to solve a problem. Reagan’s team competed against 62 other middle school teams in Problem 3, the Classics problem. The Reagan team was one of 34 teams representing Virginia at the World Finals competition. The team is coached by Michael Heilen, a parent of two of the team members. The team advanced to the World Finals by winning first place in both the regional and state competitions. They are the first team from Prince William County to compete and place in the finals.

To win second place, Reagan’s Mustangs created a mockumentary that introduced new plot elements to a classic story through behind-the-scenes action, interviews, conflicting perspectives, flashbacks and a witness character that revealed to the audience what really happened in the reinterpreted tale, according to Heilen.

Team member Anya Mischel noted about the win, “Advancing to world finals is like climbing to the top of a high mountain. Sure, from the bottom, the trek looks exhausting, but when you reach the peak, the view is amazing.”  (INSIDE NOVA / 20 June 2018)

The Brainstorming Smarties, from left: Katie Martin, 10, Buse Arici, 10, Zella Mantler, 10, Audrey Ferguson, 10, Nora Johnson, 9, Kaitlyn Nowinski,10, and, in front, Maddie Brown, 10. (by Lauren Lumpkin / The Washington Post)

Christina Headrick calls the decorating scheme in her home “mad scientist chic.” Among bookshelves and family photos are clumps of Styrofoam, specks of glitter and nearly 300 cardboard toilet paper tubes. On the floor, you can see where someone got paint on their foot.

Headrick and fellow mom Emer Johnson coach the Brainstorming Smarties, an all-girls ­engineering team from Glebe Elementary School in Arlington, Va. The seven-member team of fourth-graders is the first in the school district to make it to the Odyssey of the Mind World ­Finals. Hundreds of teams from 25 countries will converge Wednesday in Ames, Iowa, and go head-to-head in the cerebral contest.

The first time the Brainstorming Smarties competed together was at the Odyssey of the Mind regional tournament. Buse Arici, Nora Johnson, Maddie Brown, Kaitlyn Nowinski, Zella Mantler, Katie Martin and Audrey Ferguson went on to become state champions in April.

Odyssey of the Mind is a ­problem-solving competition in which students, from kindergarten through college, use art and technology to solve problems. The program was introduced at Glebe in 2015.

Participants choose one of six problems for their presentations. The Brainstorming Smarties selected the problem called “Emoji, Speak for Yourself,” in which “three-dimensional emoji will be used to communicate the life story of a once famous, but now forgotten, emoji,” according to the Odyssey of the Mind website.

“Our team chooses the [problem] with engineering in it,” 10-year-old Maddie said. The team calls their presentation “an engineering play,” packed with music, dancing and handmade machines. In Headrick’s garage-turned-workshop, the girls have engineered machines using materials that include cardboard boxes and slabs of wood rescued from the trash.

Wielding power tools and hot glue guns isn’t typical for the average 9- or 10-year-old. The Brainstorming Smarties have done their own metal cutting, drilling and even 3-D printing. Maddie’s uncle taught the girls how to sculpt Styrofoam, so they used the material to create a life-size cellphone for their performance.

While girls in K-12 schools tend to enroll in math and science courses at rates comparable to boys, male students are substantially more likely to take engineering and computer science classes, according to data from the National Science Foundation. These disparities persist in college; women received just 19 percent of engineering degrees in 2015.

“When it comes to girls, I think that Odyssey of the Mind is a program that is especially relevant,” Headrick said. “It’s extremely disturbing that only 18 to 20 percent of engineering students in the U.S. are women.”

There is only one other all-girls team from Virginia that will compete Wednesday in the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals, according to a representative.

Every Odyssey team is allowed a budget of just $145, so the girls had to find creative ways to stretch their money. They’ve learned how to make materials by hand. They’ve had to scavenge through the garbage for useful items.

At one point, the team needed pulleys for one of their machines but, at $5 each, the purchase would have pushed them over budget. “We decided to make our own,” Maddie said.

When it comes to creating, not much is off limits.

“We’ve encouraged them to make smart choices with glitter, though,” Headrick said.

In another room, Nora, 9, uses a hot glue gun to put finishing touches on a glittery mask. “I wanted to use a blowtorch,” Katie, 10, said.

“The coach’s job is basically to keep [the girls] safe and don’t let them burn down your house,” Headrick said.

Zella, 10, and Katie have taken over Headrick’s home office. Headrick said the girls taught themselves how to use Adobe Illustrator software to create graphics for their presentation.

“Graphic design is about half of our presentation,” Zella said.

The girls can’t reveal too much about their presentation, but it involves a narwhal, a cat and lots of emoji. One of their machines, triggered by a weighted lever and a wheel axle, displays a thumbs-up sign when something good happens and a thumbs-down when one of the main characters is fired from her job. Another machine was built to deliver text messages. Each machine is part of the Brainstorming Smarties’ eight-minute performance.

Headrick estimates the girls have spent more than 150 hours preparing for their performance since September. The girls said they used much of that time figuring out the details of their story.

“We have disagreements, but I won’t say we really argue a lot,” Maddie said. “I really liked that we got to write down all of our ideas and then clash them all together like a big soup. Everybody gets a say in what you do and nobody’s ideas are drowned out.”

Headrick and Johnson helped the girls organize their ideas by writing them on Post-it notes and sticking them onto a wall.

“It’s hard for them to organize,” Headrick said. “So what we do is put up all the ideas for the story, and then the kids figure out which ones are the best ideas and that becomes their script.”

Lori West, the gifted-resource teacher at Glebe, practices with the Brainstorming Smarties at school during their lunch time. “I feel like they really know their own strengths and know the strengths of their team,” she said.

The girls need all the practice they can get before the three-day tournament starts Wednesday.

Katie, who says she wants to be an architect, said there are benefits to having an all-girls team.

“We’re lucky to have an all-girls team,” she said. “We have more similar interests.”

“I just like being with my friends and having fun together,” Buse, 10, said