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Got Creative Kids? Find Great Hands-On STEAM Activity at Maker Events and Odyssey of the Mind

Like the fledgling universe after the Big Bang, Maker events can be a bit chaotic. But that’s only because of all the energy created by the swarms of curious and excited kids (and their satellite parents) clustering around robots, 3D printers, and a diversity of other experimental crafts and STEM mini-projects.

The enormous power and thrills generated by these moments of creative, hands-on learning are fuel for a lifetime’s worth of discovery and success.

With all our soccer games washed out this past weekend by three days of rain, my wife, Stylin’ IT Momma (not her real name), and I decided to take our girls to the perfectly-timed Virginia Tech Makers Festival. If you’re going to be stuck inside for the day, why not go harness some success fuel, right?

Got Creative Kids? Find Great Hands-On STEAM Activity at Maker Events and Odyssey of the Mind

Space: The Final Frontier

It was great to see so many families turn out for the free event. But, unlike the conditions of our early universe, space was hard to come by. The biggest challenge at the Makers Festival was finding enough elbow room for Lightning McQueen and RocketteGirl to get their tinker on.

Once they jockeyed themselves into a clear work space, it was on.

Robopaint RT in Action at the Virginia Tech Makers Faire

Got Creative Kids? Find Great Hands-On STEAM Activity at Maker Events and Odyssey of the Mind

Fully charged by one activity, the kids eventually broke free of their orbits to scatter, usually in opposite directions, and find another one. Pulled by the irresistible gravity of STEAM activities, Lightning and RocketteGirl propelled towards their next fun opportunity to learn while making and doing something cool, including:

  • Creating unusual electric circuits
  • Painting with bubbles
  • Printing with invisible ink
  • Preparing “seed tape”
  • Mixing a batch of colored slime
  • Building a balloon-powered hovercraft
  • Crafting and launching paper stomp rockets powered by plastic bottle triggers
  • Watching 3D printing, robotics, and perpetual marble run demonstrations
  • Building a “tornado cannon”
  • Completing a building challenge
  • Constructing gravity mazes
  • Experimenting with chromatography.

Unfortunately, just before the girls were able to test out the cool, ride-on robot rover, an over-matched toddler lost control of it and smashed into a large display table (and his mother). While no one was seriously hurt, the rover was effectively retired for the day.

An Odyssey of the Mind Preview

The variety of project stations kept the kids engaged for a good two hours. As I watched them bob and weave from one creative science experiment to the next, I was reminded that along with football and soccer, the fall season also ushers in registration for another team sport: Odyssey of the Mind.

If you’re unfamiliar with Odyssey of the Mind, don’t feel bad. The organization has been around for more than 25 years, and I’d only recently learned about it. Now that I’ve been involved, I wished I’d learned about it sooner.

Odyssey is an international program that teaches students from kindergarten through college creative problem solving, team-building skills, free expression, and how to think on their feet. Students tackle hands-on and verbal problems ranging from developing dramatic interpretations to building mechanical devices that meet specifications and perform specific tasks. After completing “long-term” problems, teams gather to present their projects and compete at the local, state and world levels. Teams from 3rd grade and higher have their long-term problems officially scored by judges and are also required to solve a timed “spontaneous” problem during competition.

Starting an Odyssey of the Mind Group Competition

Last year, both our girls participated on teams sponsored by their elementary school. RocketteGirl competed on a team of 3rd through 5th graders. I volunteered as a co-coach for Lightning McQueen’s Odyssey K-2nd grade team, the Brainstormers.

Taking on an Odyssey team was reminiscent of coaching Lighting’s soccer team in that I was a reluctant volunteer, and would be in charge of several little kids at meetings taking place at the end of long school days. Add to that the fact I would be starting the year as the lone coach with almost no idea what I was doing, and I was terrified.

At first.

The good news was, in addition to being well-organized, Odyssey of the Mind offers plenty of online coaching resources, local contacts, and mentors. The program also has an extensive and detailed rule book for coaches and students to follow. The most important rule of all is that the program is kid- not adult-driven. Coaches and parents are there mainly to facilitate and encourage without giving kids the answers. With few exceptions (like helping operate power tools for the safety of younger team members), kids must provide all the ideas and do all the work to solve the problems.

The urge to be a control freak with 5- and 6-year-olds was, at times, almost unbearable. But as I got a few team meetings under my belt and realized the amazing things my kids could think and do with just a little prompting via the Socratic Method, I was able to breathe easier.


Unsure of how I could possibly occupy the attention of seven kids for 75 minutes each week (more as tournament day approached), I quickly learned to fill our Odyssey meetings full of creativity, hands-on STEM activities (thank you, Google!), out-of-the-box thinking, storytelling, and laughter.

And the kids responded. Of course, having a co-coach join me and provide much-needed support after a few weeks helped a ton!

Starting an Odyssey of the Mind Group

The ultimate satisfaction for both coaches and kids came last March, when our Brainstormers performed an 8-minute play completely of their own making for their parents and a panel of judges. Even though “scoring” was unofficial, the judges gave the team plenty of positive feedback. From colorful set design and story-scripting to imaginative character, costume, and plot development, our team knocked it out of the park.

After spending an afternoon at the Maker Festival, RocketteGirl and Lightning McQueen are again psyched to sign up for their Odyssey teams. Meanwhile, I wonder if this Imperfect Dad has the energy to do it all over again. But given a minute to think about our awesome Team Brainstormers, how can I resist?

Chances are your child’s elementary, middle, or high school is registering students now to form Odyssey of the Mind teams. To find out more, contact your school’s PTA, Odyssey coordinator, or search here.

Find out about other STEM-related and Maker events near you, like FIRST and Maker Faire.

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  • Reply
    October 4, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    I loved Odyssey of the Mind when I was in elementary school! I did it twice, in 2nd and 4th grade. Our 2nd grade team was a bit of a mess (a lot of little kid arguments), but the 4th grade team was terrific. I would also highly recommend it to any kids who love learning and being creative.

    • Reply
      Scott Beller
      October 4, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Shannon! I don’t know how OotM got by me in elementary school here in NOVA. Our team of five 1st graders, one kindergartner, and one 2nd grader were pretty manageable as long as there was limited “down time” between meeting activities. But that took a LOT of work to be sure we had plenty of fun things on tap (much of it last-minute before meetings started – hence my “thank you” to Google… and, in a pinch, YouTube for How It’s Made and other oddities).

      Clueless Dad and I been looking for a good opportunity to plug Odyssey and maybe help boost registrations this fall. Btw, the thing that almost derailed our team last year was not having a parent volunteer coach – main reason I ended up in that role 🙂 So, the Maker Festival this weekend, with its many activities reminiscent of our OotM meetings and tournament, made it great timing for an Odyssey post.

  • Reply
    Carving out a Makerspace for Your Nerds at Home - Raising Nerd
    November 16, 2016 at 10:23 am

    […] (or two) where they can exercise their creative muscles for school and Kiwi Crate projects, for Odyssey of the Mind activities, and for everyday […]

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