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In the ~'Olympics of the Mind' The Race is to the Quick-Witted

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In 1980, a team of high-school students from Briarcliff, N.J., using five-eighths of an ounce of balsa wood and glue, designed and built a structure that stood up under 768 pounds of weight. A team of elementary-school students, also limited to glue and a bit of balsa, constructed an edifice that withstood 509 pounds of weight. Both groups surpassed, by a substantial amount, the previous record set by college students: 465 pounds.

But the students, all participants in a novel national competition called "The Olympics of the Mind," added two ingredients of their own to the minimal materials permitted by contest officials: imagination and creativity. In the Olympics of the Mind, the race is not to the swift but to the quick-witted.

Originated in 1978 by two educators from New Jersey, the Olympics of the Mind is a competition for kindergarten through 12th-grade students that aims to stretch and strengthen mental muscles.

Various Problems Tackled

The students tackle problems that range from the balsa-and-glue "superstructure" described above, to "Bucketball," in which they design a device for shooting tennis balls into a basket, to "Emotionally Speaking," in which they depict four emotions three ways: visually, aurally, and tactilely.

Teams are formed by individual schools; these teams compete with others from their state; those who win state competitions go to the national finals, which this year will be held in May in Glassboro, N.J.

Unlike other problem-solving competitions, however, the focus of the Olympics of the Mind is on applied, rather than theoretical, solutions to complex problems.

While a more academic competition might require students to design a city on paper, "We tell students to build a structure that will withstand an earthquake," said Theodore J. Gourley, director of gifted and talented education in New Jersey and one of the program's originators.

"Then, when they bring it to the tournament, we'll start piling hundreds of pounds of weight on it, and dropping weights that will send shock waves," simulating an earthquake, Mr. Gourley said.

Designed to provide a forum for highly creative students, the Olympics of the Mind also differs significantly from many other programs for "gifted" students, Mr. Gourley said.

Neither high I.Q. nor academic achievement is intended to be a criterion for participation. Rather, in a deliberate effort to model the program after varsity sports, Mr. Gourley and co-founder C. Samuel Micklus, a professor of industrial education and technology at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, want interested students to "try out" for their school's team.

"A high degree of imagination was seen as the predominant characteristic--a quality which might lead students to propose ideas or make statements which would label them as a clown, smart aleck, or odd," writes Mr. Gourley in a description of the program.

According to the two educators, the program should be open to all students, not only those who have been identified as "gifted." At many schools, however, only "gifted" students participate.

"We try to discourage that," Mr. Gourley said. "We try to have them redefine the whole thing." But only a "slim majority," he estimates, encourage all interested students to participate.

First held in 1978 as a statewide "creative problem-solving" competition, the Olympics is now nationwide.

It involves more than 25,000 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade in more than 1,000 schools--2,000 of the participants made it to the finals.

This year, Mr. Gourley said, students from at least 20 states are expected to participate.

Mr. Gourley and Mr. Micklus developed the Olympics as a solution to the problem of chal-lenging students whose talents lay in the creative, rather than the academic or athletic, realm. Mr. Micklus had used the problems in college and graduate courses in industrial arts. Mr. Gourley had been seeking a way to provide primary and secondary students with similar challenges.

The particular format that became the Olympics of the Mind, he said, turned out to be the best way of doing it. "It just sort of jelled."

After recruiting teachers to act as coaches (some schools enlist parents' aid, too), a school invites students to try out for the team. Each school pays a $45 fee to Creative Competitions, the New Jersey-based organization founded by Mr. Gourley and Mr. Micklus that runs the program.

As is the case in varsity athletics, self-selection plays a major role in developing a team, they say. Some students join, then drop out when they decide they are either unable to or uninterested in participating. The coaches observe the students and select for the team those who excel at finding solutions to the problems. The students then work their way through local and state competitions, and perhaps to the national one.

Teams who make it to the "world finals," which will be held May 28 in Glassboro, N.J., compete in three areas: long-term problems, which they have been given in advance, spontaneous problems, included to make sure that the students, not the coaches, are the creative force behind the solutions, and style of presentation.

In past years, students have been asked to design a robot for less than $10 that could move six feet across the floor, remove a cigarette from a dummy's mouth, put the cigarette in a can, pour water on the cigarette, speak to the dummy, and proceed across the floor to a predesignated spot.

Educators and parents who have been involved in the Olympics of the Mind are highly enthusiastic in their endorsement of the program. "We're very excited about it," said V. Susie Oliphant, local coordinator of the program for the District of Columbia public schools. "Each group of students brings all sorts of innovative methods." And although contest officials emphasize participation, not victory, Ms. Oliphant says of the students she works with, "They're out to win, no question about it."

School officials in the District of Columbia find the Olympics a particularly attractive program for very bright students because, with a large percentage of disadvantaged minority students, many of the standard methods of identifying "gifted" individuals simply are not effective. The Olympics allows students to display talents that often remain hidden in other situations.

Students in Arkansas will participate in the Olympics of the Mind for the first time this year, and so far, the program is being greeted enthusiastically, according to Martha Ann Jones, a parent who chairs the state's advisory council for gifted and talented children.

"It looks as if there's a great deal of interest in Arkansas," Ms. Jones said. A workshop held late in 1981 attracted a capacity crowd of 75 educators from around the state, and more requested information about the program. Coaches will work on a volunteer basis.

Some teachers are interested not only because they believe the program will benefit students, but also because they themselves can learn from it, Ms. Jones said. Many, she said, felt that they had never learned creative problem-solving techniques themselves.

For students, Ms. Jones said, the Olympics offers a way around the problem of "peer pressure" sometimes experienced by very bright children. "It's not okay to develop talent, except in athletics," she said. Because of the team approach, the Olympics avoids this.

In New York, where students are participating for the third year, the Olympics have also been a big hit. "It allows children who are somewhat on the fringes a chance to get together, to work on a common interest, and to excel at something for which they won't receive any negative comments from their peers," said Patricia Fulmer, supervisor of special projects for 27 school districts in southern Westchester County.

"It's an opportunity to be highly creative, and a normal school system does not provide that," she said.

In Arkansas, funding for the program will come entirely from private sources--foundations and industry. "It's particularly something that business and industry are interested in," Ms. Jones said. "They see the dearth of creative thinkers, and they're interested in developing students."

The Olympics of the Mind is not the only competition that challenges creative thinkers. The Future Problem Solving Program launched in 1974 by E. Paul Torrance of the University of Georgia, is also designed to develop students' skill at finding solutions to hard-to-solve problems. First used as a curriculum project for Central High School in Athens, Ga., the fpsp now sponsors programs in 21 states, with an estimated 100,000 students from the 4th to the 12th grade participating.

The program uses "futuristic" problems to "instill problem-solving skills in gifted and talented youngsters," according to program officials. The 1981-82 practice problems, for example, require students to address the issues of child abuse, extra-sensory perception, and drug use and abuse, according to Anne B. Crabbe, director of the Iowa-based fpsp

In the past, students have been judged on the process by which they developed solutions to the problems. This year, for the first time, their solutions will also be judged, according to Ms. Crabbe.

For more information on The Olympics of the Mind, write to: Olympics of the Mind, P.O. Box 27, Glassboro, N.J. 08028. For more information on the Future Problem Solving Program, write to Anne B. Crabbe, c/o Future Problem Solving Program, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402. To request an order form for program materials, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

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