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Odyssey of the Mind: Should You Do It?

Are you an adventurous academic achiever? Do you seek the chance to combine building mechanical contraptions with theatrical performances with rigorous academic thinking? Then, consider the Odyssey of the Mind, an annual competition designed for students of all ages to apply their wide variety of skills, abilities, and knowledge on an international level.


What is the Odyssey of the Mind?

The Odyssey of the Mind is an internationally recognized competition that encourages students to come up with an innovative and creative solution to any given problem through collaboration, critical thinking, and the application of classroom knowledge to real life. Teams will have to brainstorm, design, and engineering together for a full year to solve open-ended problems, ranging from building mechanical devices to presenting original skits or designing elaborate sets.


Originating in 1978, Odyssey of the Mind was founded by Dr. C. Samuel Micklus, a professor at Rowan University. The competition quickly gained popularity and expanded globally to over 25 countries. Each year, teams engage in a series of regional, state, and international tournaments, where they showcase their solutions and compete against their fellow Odyssey embarkers, where teams are judged on their ingenuity, teamwork, and imaginative problem-solving for the solution.


Participating in Odyssey of the Mind trains students to develop skills that they would never have by just sitting inside a classroom. By tackling niche, weird, yet interestingly complex problems, students learn to think critically and approach challenges from multiple perspectives. Students learn how to collaborate and work with others as teams brainstorm ideas, allocate tasks, and bring their solutions from paper to life. Additionally, students develop effective communication skills as they present their ideas and solutions to judges and peers. Throughout the Odyssey, students will learn deep life skills that will undoubtedly aid anyone as they grow up to pursue any career in any industry, with a prestigious award to prove their abilities.


Who is Eligible to Participate in the Odyssey of the Mind?

The Odyssey of the Mind is an incredibly accessible competition, with four divisions for all different age groups. Teams can be filled with up to 7 people, with the oldest member determining which division the group will be participating in. Division IV includes students from grades 9-12. Teams do not all have to be from the same school, as long as all participating schools have bought a membership to create their school chapter.


What Types of Questions Does the Odyssey of the Mind Cover?

The Odyssey of the Mind changes its questions year by year, but the unique style of the question often remains the same. The writers take some sort of realistic or fantastic scenario and ask you to build a solution to address the situation. For example, in 2023, one question asks you to overcome a barrier by creating your own version of the Trojan Horse, or more abstractly, a sculpture that is able to contain a multitude of items inside of it, while resembling something else. In 2021, a question details a scenario where you are a superhero in a hopeless situation until you remember you have a pair of special hero socks, and you must construct these socks to give a person some sort of “power” and create a theatrical scenario around its activation.


What is the Structure and Timeline of the Odyssey of the Mind?


The Odyssey of the Mind can be broken down into four different phases of the competition, all leading to the World Finals held every year in a different location in late May.

The competition begins every year with the release of the questions in late June of the prior year. Typically, five different questions are released, and teams may choose to specialize in any of the five problems to compete with. These questions involve some sort of story or scenario that needs a problem to be solved, and the students must come up with an innovative solution that transcends the question even initially asked. Here is the 2023 version of the questions.


Then, teams must participate in competitions at the Regional level, then those who place high compete at the Association Finals, and then the high placements at the Association Finals may compete in the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals. The timeline for these competitions varies year by year and by region, but the World Finals are hosted in late May at various locations, with it being at Michigan State in 2023.


Within each competition, there are three different criteria: long-term, style, and spontaneous. Long-term and style refer to the creativity and ingenuity of the solution to the problem the team has worked on outside of the competition day, but the spontaneous round consists of the team coming up with a solution to a random question given by a judge during the day of. This round requires a great deal of strategy and preparation discussed by the team beforehand, thus teams must prepare both their long-term solution and practice answering this style of spontaneous questioning. This link discusses the competition breakdown and style.


Is the Odyssey of the Mind Prestigious?

With the Odyssey of the Mind’s international reach, combined with its recognition for encouraging creative problem-solving, ingenuity, teamwork, and innovation, the competition is considered to be prestigious. The competition draws from kindergarteners to college students, across many different countries, showcasing its wide-reaching prestige and prevalence. Even after your participation, the Odyssey offers a series of awards and scholarships that are separate from the official competition, which can all be found here! The competition has a rich history of inspiring and nurturing young minds, and its alumni have gone on to excel in all sorts of fields. Alumni include Senior Vice President of Research and Development at major biotechnology companies, professors, and other people working in highly prestigious areas. The program's emphasis on fostering creativity, critical thinking, and effective communication all align with the skills needed to thrive in today's rapidly evolving world.


Why Should You Participate in the Odyssey of the Mind?

Pros:

1. You will continue to develop your creativity and critical thinking abilities

As a competition that requires a unique solution to a relatively “simple” problem, you will be pushed to your creative and intellectual limits to come up with an innovative solution to everyday problems. By forcing yourself to think outside of the box, reframe problems in different ways, see scenarios from different perspectives, research previous solutions, and design your own prototype solution, your creativity, and ability to think deeply about any issue in front of you will inevitably increase.


2. You will form close bonds with teammates and develop teamwork and collaboration skills

More than anything else, the Odyssey of the Mind fully requires teamwork in order to succeed. Working as a team of up to seven people, you must learn how to listen and incorporate everyone’s ideas, communicate with each other about each person’s successes and weaknesses, failures and triumphs, ideas and thoughts, and everything in between. You will need to learn how to delegate tasks amongst each other, and work together to create a stellar prototype, otherwise, you and your team will not be able to succeed in this competition. Then, spending so much time encouraging a healthy exchange of thoughts and ideas, performing and building together, and practicing together, you will develop a sense of camaraderie and friendship with those around you.


3. You will develop presentation and communication skills

The competition format requires teams to prepare a presentation to showcase their long-term solution in front of a panel of judges, peers, and various audience members. This requires you to develop the ability to speak confidently, present your prototype, communicate clearly with people who have no idea what you spent hours beforehand and think on the spot to any questions or the spontaneous round. This experience will hone your public speaking skills, boost your confidence, and enhance your ability to articulate and convey your ideas effectively, which is an invaluable skill for your future ahead.


4. You may tap into the Odyssey’s global connections and recognition

Odyssey of the Mind is an internationally recognized competition, that connects students from different countries and cultures, with a “pin-exchange program” being a major aspect of the competition. Meeting people will be just as rewarding as participating in the competition itself, as it allows you to expand your perspectives and meet people of new cultures, seeing how they think and approach solutions due to their different backgrounds. Outside of just meeting people, the Odyssey’s international reach serves as a marker of prestige for your participation in the competition, and even more so if you place highly, where you will also be awarded medals, trophies, and certificates in front of your international crowd. You will then have permanent access to the alumni network the competition holds, which as mentioned, consists of executives, researchers, professors, and more! Join the same alumni network as Eric Corndorf, Senior VP of R&D at Medtronic, or Dr. Mary Killackey, Chair and Associate Professor of Surgery at Tulane Medical.


Cons:

1. You must commit to a large time commitment

Being a successful participant in the Odyssey of the Mind requires a significant time commitment. You must allocate time to brainstorm ideas for your problem, then develop multiple rounds of prototypes and refinements, then prepare your presentation strategy. Then, you must also invest time to prepare for the spontaneous round, with individual and team study sessions, then team collaborative sessions to quiz yourself on the types of questions the competition will ask of you. Balancing these demands with other academic or extracurricular activities can be challenging, but it is also an incredible opportunity to learn time management and balancing skills, which is absolutely invaluable for your future.


2. You must be able to withstand competitive pressure

While some competitive spirit can encourage the best out of all of us, you or your team may feel exceptional pressure to perform well to showcase how much time you have invested into preparing for the competition. With only one shot to present to the judges your long-term solution and another one shot with your spontaneous solution, your months of preparation may result in a lower-than-expected score because of issues that occur during the one day, which may disillusion you or your teammates. Again, this can be an incredible skill to learn as you grow as a student and in your professional career, but you must also weigh your ability to perform under a high-pressure environment, even if you may be the most ingenious engineer or performer out there.


Would We Recommend Participating in the Odyssey of the Mind?

The important thing to remember is that the Odyssey of the Mind is a very unique competition. If you do enjoy a more theatrical experience intertwined with regular engineering and analytical thinking, then this unique competition will be perfect for you. If you are looking for a traditional building project or prefer studying for questions and tests, then it is probably best to not participate and look for traditional Olympiads!


If you're looking for a real-world internship that can help boost your resume while applying to college, we recommend Ladder Internships!


Ladder Internships is a selective program equipping students with virtual internship experiences at startups and nonprofits around the world! 


The startups range across a variety of industries, and each student can select which field they would most love to deep dive into. This is also a great opportunity for students to explore areas they think they might be interested in, and better understand professional career opportunities in those areas. The startups are based all across the world, with the majority being in the United States, Asia and then Europe and the UK. 


The fields include technology, machine learning and AI, finance, environmental science and sustainability, business and marketing, healthcare and medicine, media and journalism and more.


You can explore all the options here on their application form. As part of their internship, each student will work on a real-world project that is of genuine need to the startup they are working with, and present their work at the end of their internship.


In addition to working closely with their manager from the startup, each intern will also work with a Ladder Coach throughout their internship - the Ladder Coach serves as a second mentor and a sounding board, guiding you through the internship and helping you navigate the startup environment. 


Cost: $1490 (Financial Aid Available)

Location:  Remote! You can work from anywhere in the world.

Application deadline: April 16 and May 14

Program dates: 8 weeks, June to August

Eligibility: Students who can work for 10-20 hours/week, for 8-12 weeks. Open to high school students, undergraduates and gap year students!


Additionally, you can also work on independent research in AI, through Veritas AI's Fellowship Program!


Veritas AI focuses on providing high school students who are passionate about the field of AI a suitable environment to explore their interests. The programs include collaborative learning, project development, and 1-on-1 mentorship. 


These programs are designed and run by Harvard graduate students and alumni and you can expect a great, fulfilling educational experience. Students are expected to have a basic understanding of Python or are recommended to complete the AI scholars program before pursuing the fellowship. 


The AI Fellowship program will have students pursue their own independent AI research project. Students work on their own individual research projects over a period of 12-15 weeks and can opt to combine AI with any other field of interest. In the past, students have worked on research papers in the field of AI & medicine, AI & finance, AI & environmental science, AI & education, and more! You can find examples of previous projects here


Location: Virtual

Cost

  • $1,790 for the 10-week AI Scholars program

  • $4,900 for the 12-15 week AI Fellowship 

  • $4,700 for both

  • Need-based financial aid is available. You can apply here

Application deadline: On a rolling basis. Applications for fall cohort have closed September 3, 2023. 

Program dates: Various according to the cohort

Program selectivity: Moderately selective

Eligibility: Ambitious high school students located anywhere in the world. AI Fellowship applicants should either have completed the AI Scholars program or exhibit past experience with AI concepts or Python.

Application Requirements: Online application form, answers to a few questions pertaining to the students background & coding experience, math courses, and areas of interest. 


Lumiere

Conducting advanced research is another great way to build new skills, take charge and expose yourself to new perspectives. It can also boost your profile for scholarships and competitions! If you want an opportunity to build your own independent project and research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.


Aaron Zheng is a sophomore at Harvard University, studying Bioengineering. He is passionate about biotechnology, business development, and aiding students to get to college, regardless of background. In his spare time, he looks to read, journal, and explore the world.

Image source: Odyssey of the Mind logo

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