Making creative history

Pennsbury Odyssey of the Mind earns third-place trophy at World Finals for the first time in 36 years

Problem-solving power: For the first time in 36 years, Pennsbury High School’s Odyssey of the Mind team earned a third-place trophy at the World Finals. The annual competition was held virtually during COVID-19. Source: Pennsbury School District

Members of Pennsbury High School’s Odyssey of the Mind team didn’t think they could participate this year.

Many were involved in a slew of other activities, and there was simply not enough time to prepare for the regional and state levels of the annual competition, which puts students’ problem-solving skills to the ultimate test and commences in the World Finals at a university.

But then COVID-19 struck.

Since many regional and state events were unable to take place, Odyssey of the Mind dropped qualification requirements and invited all teams to compete in a reimagined virtual World Finals. With their prior commitments canceled, Pennsbury students suddenly found themselves with more than enough time on their hands to give it a shot.

Not only did the teens complete their chosen “problem” after forming at the last minute in early April (most teams organize in the fall), they made history, earning a third-place trophy at the Finals for the first time in PHS’s 36 years of participation. Pennsbury was up against teams from across the country as well as China and Poland.

“A couple of the elementary schools have placed, but it was the first time we were able to get a high school team to place,” said Krista Oleynick, a Pennsbury Odyssey of the Mind coach and board member. “It was a high school that didn’t even think they could compete because they thought they were going to be involved with a whole bunch of other activities this spring, and then when everything got shut down and OM decided to proceed with a virtual competition, they were like, ‘Oh, we have some time. Let’s jump right on this.’ ”

The Division 3 team was comprised of Oleynick’s son Robert (12), Kartik Kannan (12), Emma Desrosiers (11), Rowan Levanthal (11), Henry Lane (10), Phillip Santos (10) and Ansh Shah (10). Their “problem” was entitled “Networking.”

“They had to build three different network devices that would transmit an email, a text message and a picture, and I say that loosely. Any way that the team wanted to represent that and portray that, they can,” said Oleynick.

Requirements included writing a script, making their own props and/or devices with a budget of $140, and filming an 8-minute skit.

“It’s a lot of recycled materials and things the kids use to put together what they have to do because they’re limited in their budget planning,” Oleynick said. “What’s cool about the program is, it’s all kid-driven. There’s no outside assistance involved. Even the coaches, we’re just there to sort of keep the team focused, but we can’t come up with ideas, we can’t help them put anything together. It all is reliant on the kids doing it themselves.”

Pennsbury OM members said they were inspired by their educators, but also by the pandemic, to create a performance centered around the human body. Their skit combined art, music and drama, with physics, biology and programming, all while using recycled materials and creative engineering.

They utilized Zoom to meet virtually, discuss ideas and put everything together. Whether it was designing costumes or painting backdrops, each student had a vital role in the finished product.

When taking in the effort the students put forth, their love for Odyssey of the Mind is evident.

“It’s an amazing experience. All the kids I’ve ever known who do it, they learn so much about working together as a team and how to think creatively, how to take trash and make something of it,” said Oleynick.

Her son Robert was introduced to OM in middle school, and enjoyed the experience through high school.

“He’s been very passionate about Odyssey of the Mind and really loved this program and everything it’s given him,” Oleynick said. “For him, it was special because he thought he could not compete in Odyssey his final year, his senior year. He’s in the marching band with Pennsbury. They were supposed to go to China in April, so he thought they would not be able to compete at all because they wouldn’t have been around for the state competition level. And then when this whole thing went down and everything got canceled across the board, when this opened up, he had the opportunity to jump in, which was a great way for him to end his senior year.”

Additionally, four Pennsbury teams entered the World Finals at the middle and elementary levels, earning the following places in their judged group: Pennwood Middle (5th), Quarry Hill Elementary (6th), Fallsington Elementary (21st) and William Penn Middle (11th). Overall, there were 835 OM teams from around the world that competed.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at