Odyssey of the Mind. Photo by Melissa Fossum for West Valley View.

Odyssey of the Mind. Photo by Melissa Fossum for West Valley View.

At Tartesso Elementary School in Buckeye, a group of students is perfecting its creative thinking and teamwork abilities through its involvement in a unique program. These 20 students compete in Odyssey of the Mind.

The school’s three teams recently competed at the regional and state championships, and two will advance to the 39th Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, from May 23 through May 26.

Odyssey of the Mind has four divisions: Division I, nicknamed the “Littles” at Tartesso Elementary, consists of students from grades one through five; Division II includes students grades six through eight; Division III is high school; and Division IV is collegiate and military. It is Tartesso Elementary’s two Division II teams that are moving on.

“We had three teams total,” coach Jana Weston said. “All three of our teams advanced from the regional competition to the state competition, and then at the state competition my ‘little’ team just missed advancing on, but our other two teams did advance on to the world (finals).”

Odyssey of the Mind’s core is based around problem solving. It features long-term problems that the students spend the year working toward and spontaneous problems, which are given and solved on the spot. The kids do “pretty much everything” themselves, according to coach Nikki Hill.

“The kids have to come up with a script; they have to make their own set; they have to make up their own problems; they have to do their own stage direction; they have to come up with everything that includes all these specifications,” Hill explained.

Teams can have up to seven members, but if someone quits, no one replaces him or her. That is why one of the teams advancing to the World Finals only has six students.

“That’s what makes it a challenge,” seventh grader Benjamin Doerksen said. “I love the challenge because it’s only your seven people. They say no adults, so no adults are allowed to help you whatsoever, and then people are like, ‘Wow, that’s hard,’ but when you really think about it, it’s not just no adults; it’s no students except for those seven kids, so that’s why if someone quits, another one can’t come on, because then that would be cheating.”

Hill added, “That’s why it’s kind of good that it’s a team thing, too, because we have to choose responsible kids that are committed to us as much as we’re committed to them.”

Benjamin is one of two Tartesso Elementary students who have been with the program since the school became involved five years ago. His mother, Tammy, is head coach and a second-grade teacher. Though the first year wasn’t perfect, according to Benjamin, he stuck with it. The school has improved each year.

“I just felt amazing because we were able to work with a team, and it was just fun that year,” he said. “So, I decided to come back and it got a little bit better; and then every year it got a little bit better.”

For the students, the chance to win the world finals in May isn’t just about prizes, though.

“You get a trophy and stuff like that, but overall, I feel like it’s just the overall accomplishment in your mind, like ‘Oh, I’ve gone this far and I did all this with no people besides my team,’” eighth grader Lex Pu’e explained. “In Odyssey, there’s only the kids. Only they do teamwork, they make all of the sets, they build everything, they build their costumes, and adults can’t help whatsoever. They can’t even give advice. So, it’s just the overall accomplishment saying, ‘I did this, and I can do more.’”

It won’t be easy, though. Around 850 teams from all over the world are flocking to Iowa for a chance at the title. The big challenge, however, is the trip’s $20,000 cost. The school is raising money through business partnerships, parents, friends, families, fundraisers and GoFundMe.

“The challenge is now to get there,” Tammy explained. “We’re a small, rural, Title I school like everybody on the west, way out here, so that’s the challenge.”

The students and teachers are enthusiastic about the program and the opportunity, though.

“We’re representing the whole central region,” Tammy said. “There’s only four teams from the whole state that were selected from this region, the whole Phoenix area. The rest are from Tucson or up north, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff. So, there are four teams out of this whole area that we just talked about and two of them are right here.”

Hill chimed in, “In our tiny little school. It’s amazing.”

Tammy added, “And the other two are from a charter school in Peoria.”

Though the competition and fundraising is on everybody’s minds, Benjamin raised one issue with the finals’ scheduling.

“That’s when Solo (A Star Wars Story) comes out, so I have to find a way to ditch my team and get to it,” Benjamin said, making his coaches laugh.

To contribute to the trip, contact the Saddle Mountain Unified School District at 623-474-5115 or visit gofundme.com/odyssey-of-the-mindworld.