DURHAM — Teams in an Odyssey of the Mind competition might come up with wildly different solutions to the same problem. Some answers might be more creative than others, some may be more successful than others, but at the end of the day, everything the teams do is “handmade and children-made,” as Durham fourth grader Jordyn Powell put it.

Durham’s Odyssey of the Mind team members work on some spontaneous problem solving to get ready for the world finals next month. Times Record photo by Hannah LaClaire

Odyssey of the mind is a worldwide creative problem-solving program that challenges students of different age groups to work together to come up with unique and entertaining solutions to a predetermined problem, as well as a spontaneous problem for which the students are unprepared. They are judged on their solution to a problem as well as how creative their solution is. Team coaches are not allowed to help at all.

Jordyn is one of six students from the Durham program advancing to the Odyssey of the Mind world finals in Michigan at the end of May. The Durham students, as well as two teams from Bath Middle School, are among the 19 Maine teams heading to Worlds, where they will compete against hundreds of other teams according to Maine state co-coordinator Elise Copeland.

“It’s fun creating something with no adult help,” said Isaiah Helfrich, one of the Durham students.

“We can’t even say ‘great idea,’” his mother and coach Kirsten Helfrich said of the guidance (or lack thereof) provided by coaches, “but we can help them understand the problem.” She and co-coach Jay Ritcheson have to be almost completely hands-off, providing only structure for the team.

The skills learned through Odyssey are ones that Helfrich said she believes students aren’t always getting in the traditional classroom setting.


A recent study by software company Adobe found that creative problem solving, or “redefining problems and opportunities, coming up with new, innovative responses and solutions and then taking action” is a skill that 97% of educators and 96% of policymakers value. However, less than half of those educators feel they have the training and the knowledge to help students develop those skills. Another 80% saying they lack the time to create curriculum around problem-solving and 60% saying they don’t have control over the lessons they teach.

These are the gaps that Odyssey of the Mind tries to fill.

“There are many teachers who feel that, with the advent of current educational initiatives, they are unable to adequately meet the needs of their most creative students,” said Fern Brown, Maine Odyssey State Co-Director in a statement. “Odyssey fills that need as it occupies a unique spot where science and technology meets theater and the arts.”

Luana Sena, left, tosses a coin to Lexi Ritcheson at a recent Durham Odyssey of the Mind practice. Times Record photo by Hannah LaClaire

According to the organization, students also learn interpersonal and collaborative skills, communication, self-direction and adaptability.

“The need for skills with broad application is seen in the idea that today’s students must somehow be prepared for jobs that don’t exist, using technology that doesn’t exist — yet. If we don’t know what they’ll need for future roles, it’s essential we prepare students to navigate the unknown, overcome hurdles, and come up with cutting-edge solutions to unfamiliar challenges. This, ultimately, is where creative problem-solving skills shine,” according to the study.

Ritcheson said he sees that creativity and adaptability in his team every day as they work through problems and come up with solutions that, as an adult, never would have crossed his mind.


In the state competition April 6, the team, one of three from Durham, placed even though some of the other schools had props that were more refined, Helfrich said. Durham’s Division I team, though, was creative and funny with its eight-minute skit about Leonardo Da Vinci.

The problem, Leonardo’s Workshop, tasked the students with portraying Da Vinci’s workplace in an original, creative performance that included Leonardo, a patron, and a naysayer. They had to recreate a DaVinci painting, make a three-dimensional representation of one of his works, and recreate another of his works in any form they wished.

The students recreated a painting of Lady with an Ermine, Mona Lisa (a whiny moaning Lisa instead) and a paper mache parachute.

One of the Bath teams selected another problem, “Opposites Distract.”

“They were to create and present a humorous performance about a sneaky character that distracts others while trying to take control. This team selected the cell phone as the sneaky character and how it disrupts family life. The sneaky character had to lure the others into silly arguments, presented using different dramatic style and including attention-getting effects. In the end, they were to catch the sneaky character before it took control,” explained Judi Mansfield, a Bath coach.

“Odyssey of the Mind teaches students to think outside the box, persevere and try again when things don’t work out as hoped, and work together as a team,” she said. “The students take total responsibility for their work and are proud of their accomplishments.”


“It was really cool to see how it evolved,” Helfrich said of the Da Vinci skit, especially given that last year, the team didn’t even make it to the state tournament.

With their Da Vinci skit nailed down, the students are practicing randomly assigned problems for the “spontaneous” component, which all of them agreed is usually the hardest part.

Finn Conway, a fourth grader, said he originally joined Odyssey of the Mind thinking it was something else. But then he stuck with it since he does not have any winter sports, and now it’s a fun activity that uses his brain in a different way, he said. Plus, it helps with his stage fright.

Emma Jenusaitis, a fifth-grader, said it is also just really fun and that the team members are all fun.

All the kids, Jordyn, Isaiah, Finn, Emma, Lexi Ritcheson and Luana Sena said they were very excited for the world tournament, although most of them also said they were a little nervous to go so far from home.

“It’s going to be a big change for all our teammates,” Jordyn said.


Both the Durham and the Bath teams are busy fundraising for their trips. The Durham trip needs to raise about $9,000 for the travel, room and board and incidental expenses. Helfrich said they have raised about $7,500 in funds and pledges through GoFundMe, bake sales and local business supporters. The two Bath teams are trying to raise about $18,000.

Donations to the Bath program can be mailed c/o Elise Copeland, RSU1 coordinator, Fisher-Mitchell School, 597 High Street, Bath 04530 and made payable to RSU1 Education Foundation.

Donations to the Durham team can be submitted on the team’s GoFundMe page.

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