Sonoma County fourth graders headed to Odyssey of the Mind World Finals

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition that emphasizes hands-on creativity, science, technology, engineering, arts and math.|

Fueled by Capri Sun, six exuberant Santa Rosa fourth graders spent weekends preparing for the Odyssey of the Mind competitions in an elementary school multipurpose room and a garage filled with holiday decorations.

Painting signs, sewing fabric and taping each other inside cardboard boxes were all part of the creative process, they said.

And it turns out that all the sports practices, theater rehearsals, dance classes and weekend sacrifices were worth it. The group from Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley Elementary School is headed to compete in the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Michigan State University beginning Wednesday.

“I'm really excited because this is my first time ever doing Odyssey of the Mind,” said Lily Chasan, 10. “I didn't think I'd make it past the first tournament.”

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition, cofounded by C. Samuel Micklus and Theodore Gourley in 1978 at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. The competitions emphasize hands-on creativity, science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The kids are split into four age divisions and scored based on how they attempt to solve two problems: a long-term problem, in which they are given unlimited time to prepare under a cost limit, and a spontaneous problem, in which they enter a room and are tasked with solving an unknown challenge such as building a structure with materials provided.

They learn how to be a team, problem solve and have “crazy fun” said Cathy Parker, their fourth grade teacher who’s been teaching for 38 years.

“Garages get filled and the cars have to stay outside, because the things are big that they build ― It's just a crack up,” Parker said.

When Parker discovered Odyssey of the Mind in the ‘80s, she said it completely changed how she taught because it gives kids the space to be creative, collaborate and overcome obstacles thrown their way. She’s been a team coach, a judge and a regional director.

After competing in the qualifying tournament, the top three groups advance to the state finals. The Hidden Valley fourth graders ended up in second place in Northern California for their age group and problem.

All six, (Lily Chasan, 10; Lexa Satow, 10; Nell Inkabi, 10; Tim Lee, 9; Ryan Rice, 10 and Veronica Luvishis, 10) described their state tournament as the most exciting moment of their experience thus far.

“When we saw our scores, we we're like, ‘oh, we're not gonna make it. Let's just pack our bags’ and everyone was in such a down mood,” Veronica said. “And then when we saw we were second place, we were like, ‘Oh, my God! I guess we are not packing our bags yet.”

The kids said the process has taught them team work, listening to others, friendship, and not giving up when challenges are thrown at them.

“Our kids, they just worked really hard,” Parker said. They got to the World Finals through their teamwork and creativity with how they build things and use their funds.

“So, it doesn't matter what kind of a place you're from,” Parker said. “It's the ideas that the kids express that are evaluated by the officials.“

Other Sonoma County teams that qualified for the world finals include Windsor High School, competing in the “Pirates and the Treasure” vehicle problem in which they had to come up with concept for a pirate vehicle; and a Strawberry Elementary School team which will compete in the “Where’s the structure?” problem in which the team is given building materials and challenged to create a structure.

Starting Wednesday they will meet kids from all over the world including Switzerland, China, Canada and Poland. The Hidden Valley kids are competing to solve this year’s long term classics problem “The Walls of Troy.”

The Walls of Troy problem is a take on ancient Greek poet Homer’s The Iliad. The team writes and performs their own spin on the story of Achilles and the Trojan Horse. Their challenge is to devise a way to past the fortress wall, using an unusual statue, complete with input from a Greek chorus.

The Hidden Valley team’s take on the Iliad by uses modern technology, cellphones and online ads in their play. Lily plays the wall, which is covered in ads. She gives Athena (played by Lexa) riddles that she must answer to get past her. Lexa then uses, a smartphone (the modern-day Trojan Horse, played by Tim) to answer the riddles.

“We work as a team by listening to each other's thoughts by stopping, listening, then seeing if we can somehow combine both ideas or multiple ideas to get a good score,” Tim said. “But overall, we just have to have a good attitude.”

Parents have to work hard to become a teammates, said Parker. Without them, driving to practices, volunteering to be coaches, spending hours a week helping with fundraising efforts, there wouldn’t be a team.

Parents learn valuable lessons about their kids in this process. They’re not allowed to make suggestions or provide outside help, aside from buying the supplies requested by the kids and providing a safe place to practice.

"The thing that I like about Odyssey of the Mind is this whole idea that it's totally kid created,“ said Lipman, the coordinator.

“The kids learn that they can create something amazing by working hard at something,” he said. “And the parents learn that the kids can do this.”

One of the two coaches, Veronica’s dad, Igor Luvishis, said aside from it being a huge time commitment, it was difficult to simply stand by.

“They are kids, sometimes they just want to run around,” Luvishis said. “You can't advise them, you can’t tell them what to do, so you need just to kind of create an environment where they produce ideas. That's a challenging thing.”

The fundraising is also a challenge for parents, said Lynn Satow, Lexa’s mom, who estimated it costs at least $2,000 per kid.

“You can imagine that as parents we were quite shocked to suddenly be booking a trip to Michigan,” said Kristin Chasan, Lily’s mother.

In addition to the cost, there were flights, hotels, rental cars and costs to ship the props and costumes to Michigan.

They held a bake sale, a school movie night, dine and donate at Superburger and sold concessions at all of the girls' basketball games. They also set up an online fundraiser, which has raised $3,640 out of their $15,000 goal.

Chasan said the kids were very involved in this process. They baked, sold snacks and made posters to spread the word.

“I feel like I don’t want to mess up ― I want to prove those judges why we got there in the first place,” said Veronica. “I want to show that we're a little kids but we can do more, and also I’m very excited.”

“I’ve learned in general life and in Odyssey of the Mind, always think outside of the box and be curious, ask a lot of questions,” said Lexa. “I think you should know that a lot.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Veronica Luvishis and Lexa and Lynn Satow’s last names.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Education Reporter

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering education, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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