Friday, June 03, 2016

TOP STORY >> Sylvan Hills team goes to Iowa

Leader staff writer

From last to first — that’s the story of the Sylvan Hills Middle School Odyssey of the Mind team.

Seventh-grader Nikolas Whitehead, one of three students on the seven-person team from last year, called it a great turnaround.

Truthfully, he didn’t say the team finished last the previous year. He said, “dead last,” which made this year’s solid first place finish and a trip to the world competition even sweeter.

The team took first in regionals, and bested 11 other teams to take first at the state-level competition in Beebe held in April. The first- and second-place teams, Sylvan Hills Middle School and Washington Junior High School in Bentonville, moved on to the world competition, with 799 other teams from around the globe, which was in Ames, Iowa, the last week of school.

Nineteen students auditioned in September for the seven positions. Six of the seven selected had previous Odyssey of the Mind experience and four had been to the world competition before.

Members of the team included Whitehead, eighth-graders Tori Taylor, Khadijah Kaliq, seventh-graders Gracie Yielding, Carly Hall, and sixth-graders Noah Radke and Canon Pedersen.

Eighth-grader Tori Taylor, one of the veterans on the team, admitted when the seven were first picked, “well, some of us weren’t particularly happy with some of the choices, but we all became friends and now we are a family.”

She considered herself the team’s peacekeeper. “We were all passionate about our ideas,” she said, adding she had to referee a time or two.

Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college.

Team members use their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then bring their solutions to competition on the local, state and world level. Thousands of teams from around the U.S. and from about 25 other countries participate in the program.

In the Odyssey of the Mind competition, student teams get to choose from five categories. This year’s Sylvan Hills team chose the fifth category, which was a theatrical presentation called “Furs, Fins, Feathers and Friends.”

“Two categories had to do with building something, another was about technology and the fourth was about the classics, and only two of us felt comfortable with that one. But everyone liked the acting choice,” Taylor said.

Whitehead agreed. “I’ve always been into acting and writing,” he said.

The team started working on their project in October and had to have it completed by March.

“Well, at least 99 percent complete,” said Cindy Taylor, Tori’s mother and one of the coaches. The other coaches were Sam Kimes and Megan Whitehead. The teacher advisor was Christi Hall.

Coach Taylor explained that for the theatrical activity the team had to have a mammal, a fish and a bird as the main characters, and each had to demonstrate an assigned emotion and then the characters had to be shown helping each other, helping a stranger and helping solve a world problem.

The performance also had to include an original song and dance, and unique sound and a door.

Taylor played the sympathetic owl, and Whitehead was the curious puffer fish. Khadijah Kaliq was a frustrated giraffe.

At regional, state and world finals, the team was judged for performance, style and a spontaneous question session.

At state, the team scored 155 out of 200, which was not as good as they expected and about five points below their regional score, so their first-place announcement was a surprise.

“We thought we were going to win, but we weren’t sure until they called our names,” Whitehead said.

Once the state title was securely in the hands of the Sylvan Hills team, the students had to raise money for the trip to Iowa.

The team collected enough money by visiting every business on Kiehl Avenue and asking for support, explained Taylor.

“We also got some financial help from the district and the state,” she said.

On the drive to Iowa, the team worked to improve their script. “We took the judge’s critiques and comments to heart and tried to improve it,” Whitehead said. “And it was a long drive, so we had a lot of time to prepare.”

At the world competition, the team finished in the middle of the pack, placing 32nd out of 65 teams, but in the spontaneous category the team actually scored 105 points out of 100.

“When five of us were sent into the room in isolation and the judges gave us our question. I just smiled and said to myself, ‘We’ve got this.’”

The surprise question the team had to answer was “What kind of superpower would you like to have and why? “Luckily, we were all into superheroes,” Taylor quipped.

Part of the takeaway from the world competition, according to the students was meeting people from all over the world and trading pins that the teams had designed.

“We combined Batman with the animal theme for our pins, and everyone seemed to like them,” Taylor said.

All the students came home with quite a collection of pins from other teams, according to Coach Taylor.

Whitehead said he met students from Korea, Singapore and Poland. “That was cool. Where else can you meet such a diverse group. It was a really, really cool experience,” he said.

Whitehead said Odyssey of the Mind teaches a lot of team-working skills “that will help throughout life,”

Taylor added that as a member “you definitely learn teamwork and gain problem-solving” skills.

Taylor hopes to make the high school team next year, and Whitehead wants to become the veteran on the middle school team.