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Kelly Donoughe: How Odyssey of the Mind Inspired This Alumnus

07/19/2011 06:00 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

My guest today is Kelly Donoughe. I met her at the world finals of Odyssey of the Mind which took place in late May. Welcome to OpEdNews, Kelly. What is Odyssey of the Mind and what brought you to College Park for the competition?

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition that encourages students to stretch their imagination and solve challenges in new and unique ways. I participated in Odyssey of the Mind for three years while I was in middle school and high school. After my days as a performer were over, I volunteered as a judge and official who oversaw various parts of one of the regional competitions. I'm not judging at the world finals this year, but I still wanted to come out and see the performances of such high caliber students.

It's a kind of mental team Olympics, correct? Can you tell us a bit about how it works? I'm assuming that it's pretty similar to the days when you participated.

Yes, it is very similar to a type of Olympic mental games. The teams participate in two types of activities - we call them "long-term" and "spontaneous." The teams are typically formed in the beginning of a school year (August-October) and once formed, they usually choose one of five long-term challenges, or long-term problems as we call them. These challenges each have underlying themes from year to year. There is always a problem that involves building a vehicle, setting up a mechanical contraption, spinning off of a piece of classic literature or architecture, building and testing a balsa wood structure, and performing a skit with various requirements. During the competition, each team must complete their challenge (vehicle, contraption, structure, etc.) while simultaneously performing a skit, all within eight minutes.

The other part of the team's competition is the spontaneous competition. Unlike in the long-term problems, the teams are unable to come with a prepared solution. This challenges them to think of creative answers and solutions right on the spot. There are three types of spontaneous problems that a team could encounter in a competition setting. They are called verbal, hands on, or verbal-hands on. In the verbal problems, teams will be challenged to think of creative answers to a question or prompt. Hands on problems usually involve a challenge to build something with a given set of household supplies. Verbal-hands on problems are a combination of the two - the team must come up with creative verbal answers regarding a prop that they can use.

This is still a little abstract. Can you give us an example of a specific spontaneous problem? And are the spontaneous ones the scariest because it's much harder to prepare for them?

I'll give an example of a verbal hands-on problem. Let's say a team is given a pair of kitchen tongs and asked to explain what they are used for. Each answer will be scored as creative or non-creative. The team will be given one minute to think, but during this time they may not write anything down or communicate with their team members. Once that time is up, they're given two minutes to go around the table and present their answers. For this type of problem, the team members may use the tongs as a prop. So a team member can say that the tongs are the antennas to an extraterrestrial communications device and pretend to be tuning the antennas as they give their answer. [Other official examples can be found on the Odyssey of the Mind website at http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/practice/default_cat.php?Id=2 ]

I always enjoyed the mystery of the spontaneous problems. It's an adrenaline rush to be in that room and have to think and respond quickly. Only the team is allowed in the spontaneous competition room (no spectators or coaches) so they are truly flying solo for this part of the competition. Teams will often practice a couple of spontaneous problems at each meeting, but you never know what you're going to have to do on a competition day. Sometimes teams do really well; other times, they crack under the pressure.

I can imagine! How nerve-wracking. How did being involved with Odyssey of the Mind make an impact on you, Kelly?

I credit Odyssey of the Mind for getting me to where I am today. After competing in the structure problem for several years in middle and high school, I decided that I wanted to study civil engineering in college. Odyssey of the Mind honed my problem-solving skills which I could then use and apply in many of my engineering courses. I currently work full-time as a civil engineer while going to school to earn my PhD. I eventually want to teach and inspire students just like Odyssey inspired me.

You also got your family hooked on Odyssey of the Mind. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, Odyssey of the Mind has become a whole family affair! My dad volunteered to be a spontaneous judge during my first year in Odyssey. From then on out, he was hooked. He coached my team the following two years and continued to coach high school and middle school teams for years after I stopped competing. He eventually became the Magic Center Region Director and since then he's moved up to be a state problem captain. My mom has also gotten involved with Odyssey. Not only did she welcome high-energy students into her house for weekly meetings, she also held the unofficial title of Assistant Regional Director and has moved up the ranks to be nominated to become the Florida's State Score Room Director (we'll know the results of that soon). My sister, although she never competed in Odyssey of the Mind, has judged at the regional director and volunteered to run the primary division (kindergarten through second graders).

I love that my family is so involved with Odyssey of the Mind. It's a great organization that builds students up and encourages them to set (and achieve) high goals.

I met your mom at the world finals in May. What was she doing? And how did you get started in the first place, Kelly, that first time in middle school?

My mom was a score checker for the high school mechanical problem. The Magic Center Region is what we call the group of teams in Central Florida. My dad organized the regional competition and oversaw more than 100 teams each year. He led spontaneous trainings and guided first-year teams through everything they needed to know.

I got started in Odyssey of the Mind because I had friends who were doing it. My middle school only advertised Odyssey to the students in the gifted program, so I was lucky to be friends with the gifted kids, even though I wasn't specifically in the program. I think that it's important to offer opportunities like this to all children because you never know what undiscovered talents they might have!

Agreed. Anything else?

No, I have nothing further to add. Thank you for taking the time to interview me.

Thanks so much. It was a pleasure talking with you, Kelly.

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Odyssey of the Mind website

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