Byline: Beth Reese Cravey, County Line staff writer
To the untrained eye, they looked like simple pieces of construction paper in the shape of a pie with two slices cut out.
But seven Fleming Island Elementary School students, who are learning to think beyond first impressions, moved the pieces into different combinations and saw a baby carriage, a mouse and its two ears, an ice cream cone, an hourglass and a decapitated snake head, among other things.
The students' next task was to spontaneously create something from Play-Doh, which prompted more out-of-the-box ideas.
"A Lego piece."
"A person petting a dog."
That's the kind of brainpower called for in Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem-solving competition for students in grades K-12 and college that is starting to catch on in Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties. Teams of five to seven students learn teamwork, brainstorming, self-reliance and respect for individual strengths as they solve problems by pooling their creativity, knowledge and skills.
The Fleming Island fifth-graders, the only Clay County team in the Odyssey program's St. Johns River region this year, have spent several months preparing for a March 2 regional competition, in which teams from eight schools in Duval and one from both Clay and St. Johns will participate.
On Sunday afternoons, at the Fleming Island home of one of their members, they gathered to develop the required "theatrical and engineering solution" to a specific Odyssey situation, which will be presented to a panel of judges at the competition. Their solution is a skit -- "The Story of Pencil Man" -- complete with stage scenery and props, based on a story one of the students, Adam Rice, wrote in the first grade.
Also, they tackled the kind of "spontaneous" problems, such as thinking up creative descriptions for the construction paper shape and designing Play-Doh pieces, that they will be asked to solve at the competition.
Look at it as a hands-on academic team of sorts.
The Fleming Island crew -- Staci Beigner, Maxx Fleck, Madison Hood, Dana Jackson, Abbi Lambert, Adam Rice and Mike Tanner -- said they love the challenge, not to mention the practice-session snacks.
"I like it because I like being creative," said Abbi.
"I like using my imagination, stretching it," said Maxx.
"I like it because my parents aren't allowed to help," said Mike, laughing.
Parents support the program, serving as advisers, helping buy supplies, getting their children to the practice sessions and competitions, and acting as cheerleaders. But the students make the decisions and do the work, said Mike and Beverly Hood, who helped established the Fleming Island team after their daughter, Madison, enjoyed being on an Odyssey team at her former school in California.
"We're not supposed to give them any ideas, just help make it plausible," said Mike Hood.
The students developed their skit, designed the stage set and decided which of them would play which role. They picked out what materials to use for the set and bought the items on a field trip to a hardware store. They have rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, shaving off critical seconds so that setup and presentation do not exceed the eight-minute limit. …