Every Friday after school, Mychael Fenlon’s fifth-grade science classroom turns into an auto shop.
Seven of her students push back the desks, sprawl out on the floor and tinker with their vehicles, adjusting the cogs of the old clock, the rubber bands and the mouse traps that power them.
The St. John’s Episcopal Day School Odyssey of the Mind team has practiced every week since January, and now is putting final touches on its entries for the world finals at Michigan State University on May 22-25.
“I thought it would be really fun,” said Fenlon, who agreed to co-sponsor the team when it formed.
Odyssey of the Mind is an international competition that tests the creative problem-solving abilities of students in kindergarten all the way through college. There will be 8,000 competitors from throughout the world at the finals, and the St. John’s team will compete against 55 teams in its division.
“It’s really unusual that a team in their first year would get to world finals,” said Adam Burden, the team’s parent-coach.
Burden competed in the Odyssey of the Mind competition 25 years ago when he was in school, he said. His team made it to the world finals in 1987. Now his daughter, Abby, is on the St. John’s team.
“It seemed like a really good program for them,” Burden said.
The team was given its “problem” in advance, Burden said. The theme is “Pet Project.” The students have to make three different vehicles with different propulsion systems – one is a rocket, one is made with a mouse trap and one is made with rubber bands. Each vehicle has to move and deliver a part at the finish line. At the end, the parts are assembled into a pet that does a trick.
The teams have to weave a story through their demonstration using costumes and playacting. The St. John’s story is called “When Pigs Fly.”
“They’re ready for their electrical and mechanical engineering degrees after this,” Burden said.
Mackey Jones, a member of the team, rarely leaves Burden’s side at practice and watches closely as Burden explains the ratchets, friction and gearing that build and power the car made with yardsticks and an old clock.
“I like building stuff like this,” Jones said.
The team placed first in the regional competition and second in the state earlier this year, Burden said. At each competition, the judges wrote notes for the students on how to improve before they go to the world finals.
After a snack of pizza and soda, the team spends an hour or two at practice working on its cars, its posters and its story script. The materials they use all came from a team member’s attic or garage, because the team only is allowed to spend $165 on the entire entry.
An old Bee Gee’s record and a Neil Diamond record are the wheels on the mousetrap car. But the team doesn’t like Neil Diamond anymore because the wheel kept falling off, Burden said.
The team was invited to give a demonstration of its rocket at a school assembly, which the students really enjoyed, Fenlon said. The team has been holding yard sales and selling concessions at school functions to raise money for the trip.
“Every kid puts in a lot of work,” Fenlon said.
The team members are: Abby Burden, Trey Carlson, Mackey Jones, Greta Schmitzer, Jake Spencer, Joseph Strickland and Aidan Willett. Reid Ballard, another fifth-grader, serves as the assistant coach.