“Odyssey” a Product of Lions’ Minds
Sam Micklus MA ’68 is the creator of Odyssey of the Mind, an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college.
Sam Micklus MA ’68 attended The College of New Jersey because he needed a master’s degree to teach industrial design courses at Glassboro State (now Rowan) University’s technology department.
Another benefit came about from his time at then-Trenton State. “Had I not gone to Trenton, I wouldn’t have started Odyssey of the Mind,” Sam said.
Sam’s academic competition began in 1978 with 28 New Jersey schools. He thought it would be a “one-time thing.” Now it has a worldwide following, including members from China, Russia, and Australia. According to an Odyssey of the Mind (OotM) spokesperson, the world finals usually draw around 780 teams, with the awards ceremony attracting 18,000 people.
Before getting to the world finals—this year’s, the 30th annual, were held May 27–30 at Iowa State University—thousands of five- to seven-member teams compete at local and then state/provincial levels. Participants, whose school status ranges from kindergarten to college, spend weeks or months beforehand solving five problems in different subject areas. At competition, teams present their solutions to judges as well as solving a “spontaneous problem.” The problems have multiple solutions with creativity encouraged.
Sam says Odyssey’s competitive aspect is a key reason for its enduring popularity. “If one kid is shooting baskets, they’ll see how many in a row they can make. If you get two kids together, and one of them is shooting baskets, they’ll start playing,” he explains. “Competition is natural for kids. The other thing, [Odyssey] is fun. Kids have to think.”
OotM still relies heavily on Sam’s family. Wife Carole, whom he credits as the driving force in ensuring OotM’s long-term survival, clarifies issues teams have about the assigned problems. She’s also the tournament director for the world finals. Son Sammy is president of Creative Competitions, Inc., which licenses the non-profit organizations that administer OotM. Sammy is also director of the Odyssey of the Mind program.
Sam develops problem ideas with Sammy and does artwork for competition materials. His involvement is scaled down from past years, which he enjoys.
“I don’t have to travel nearly as much as I used to,” says Sam, who highlights some of his airline misadventures in his 2006 book, The Spirit of Creativity. “That’s a blessing.”
Now, Sam spends the bulk of his time in Florida, playing golf and socializing with friends. The grandkids occasionally visit. “I look forward to a rainy day sometime so I can keep up with stuff,” he adds.
Another TCNJ alumnus involved with Odyssey of the Mind is Dan Semenza ’60, who is one of OotM’s seven international problem captains. Dan helps to take ideas generated by Sam and turn them into judged problems. Individually, Dan finetunes the annual structure, or “balsa wood,” problem.
“I dread when he walks into a hardware store,” Dan says of Sam, “because he’ll come up with three or four ideas that we’re going to have to turn into a problem.”
Dan’s time at TCNJ wasn’t as purposeful as Sam’s. “If you talk about this to my classmates they’d say, ‘Him? Doing this?’” Dan says. “I spent four years partying at fraternities. I played basketball, baseball, soccer. I ran track a couple of years. I worried more about athletic and social stuff than academics.”
A funny thing happened when he stepped into a classroom and started teaching. “Something clicked and I never looked back,” Dan says.
He admits that in 34 years of teaching he was far from traditional, using projects (e.g., developing the school of the future) as the basis of his lessons. And he never taught a subject the same way twice. The Revolutionary War was examined from the British and U.S. angles, with kids becoming so involved that a fistfight once broke out at recess over the Boston Tea Party.
Dan’s wife, teacher Josephine Weber, turned him on to Odyssey of the Mind in the early 1980s. After judging a competition, she said to him, “You have to see this.” Dan did, and soon he had the Edison school district hooked. From 1985 to 1992, he coached 210 teams, taking 13 to the world finals.
“The one basic thing it did was it showed [students] that obstacles were put in the way to get around,” Dan says. “There are no dead ends.”
Dan now lives in Florida and is involved in Rotary International. Occasionally, Sam and Dan play golf together. When they’re together for OotM, the scene is a little different, especially at the world finals.
“Sam is still the icon for Odyssey of the Mind. He walks onto the campus and he’s mobbed by kids,” Dan says. “If someone asks for an autograph, it’s a whole other story. He talks to every single kid at length.”
“If it’s important to the kid, it’s important,” Sam says. “If some kid feels good about having his shirt or hat signed, I’m fine with it. It’s their week in the sun, so whatever they want, they get.”
“He’s perfect for the environment,” Dan says.
Posted on May 29, 2009