ST. ALBANS – People wouldn’t generally think of octopi, seaweed and catapults as having much in common, and nine times out of ten they’d probably be right.

But Odyssey of the Mind has a way of bringing together these fishy combinations, and it’s this combination in particular that one of the St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC)’s four teams will bring to Odyssey’s World Finals in Michigan later this month.

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition. Teams are given an open-ended challenge and, as long as their answer checks off certain boxes and fits within an allotted timeframe and budget, teams can spin their response in any direction.

That’s why, when it came to picking a theme, this team from SATEC spanning third- through sixth-grade decided to take their response under the sea, though it seemed the students weren’t entirely sure why. “Why did we pick under the sea?” Maria Larivee, the team’s third-grader and “octopus,” wondered aloud.

The kids from this SATEC team concluded it was probably just the most agreeable pick.

Teams are generally divvied up according to age and which of Odyssey of the Mind’s general questions the team would like to answer. Ages span can span from a third- to fifth-grade elementary-level team to an exclusively college-level team, with a middle school level and high school level in between.

Their answers typically include a performance and a construction of sorts, and the best teams have to find a role for everyone. It taps into the team’s STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – skills, their performance skills, communication skills and abilities to work as a team.

Students are also forced to stretch their budgets, as they’ll have to come up with costumes and props within a regulation budget.

Odyssey of the Mind’s questions vary wildly, too.

This year, one question challenges teams to devise a skit that brings audiences into the workshop of Renaissance painter and inventor Leonardo DaVinci, with both a Patron and a “Naysayer” looking over the artist’s shoulder as they judge the artist’s work with promises that at least one of those paintings be recreated unconventionally – no paints, pencils or pens – and another be made three-dimensional.

In the case of this SATEC team heading to World Finals, however, their task didn’t start fishy. It started, originally, at the carnival.

The question these kids chose to answer tasked them with building a balsa wood structure and shooting that structure into the hands of another team member under the guise of a carnival game.

Once said structure is tossed, the team gets to test how strong that balsa structure is, sliding weights onto the structure until, finally, it gives way and crashes under that weight. (Breaking the structure was apparently very popular with this SATEC team, according to more than one of its members.)

This year, their structure, a crisscrossing weave of balsa strands resembling a strut of the Eiffel Tower, held more than 300 pounds, the most of any structure in their class at Vermont’s state championships.

“There’s lots of buildings that have that x-pattern,” explained Mason Conner, an Odyssey veteran and the team’s only sixth-grader. “There’s a lot of famous buildings that have held for a very long time… The weight flows through it better.”

They’ll be reinforcing those struts when they rebuild their towers for the World Finals, where winning structures hold up to as much as a thousand pounds or more.

This team competes in Odyssey’s second division, generally reserved for sixth- to eighth-graders. The team’s oldest members defines which class it competes in and because Conner’s in sixth grade, these elementary schoolers compete against middle school counterparts.

They also won, beating their competitors from Essex Middle School by a margin of 50 points.

They’ll also be challenged with spontaneous questions over the course of a competition. When this SATEC team competed at state championships in March, they had to make an impromptu fishing pole and cast it out past a certain point.

Odyssey of the Mind might seem obtuse to stray onlookers, but to the parents and coaches supporting these teams, it’s proven to be an invaluable experience for their kids.

“It’s learning that you can be really creative and think outside the box,” said Lynn Tetreault, the director of SATEC’s Odyssey of the Mind team and the parent of three Odyssey veterans. “It’s an open book and they get to write the book.”

Tetreault said she’s seen kids return from Odyssey competitions more confident. She’s seen shy kids become more outgoing and quiet kids become team players.

She’s seen these impacts even with her own kids.

“Sometimes we’ll be doing something at home and it’ll be like ‘Oh, Odyssey taught you that,’” Tetreault said.

“It’s a great program. For my kids, they’ve learned a lot,” said Kim Conner [Full disclosure: Kim Conner is the head of Messenger Marketing], one of the coaches of the SATEC team bound for World Finals. “They come up with this wild idea but then they have to say ‘Okay, how do I do that?’

“It’s the problem solving. It’s the interactions with people. It’s learning how to speak with a crowd, how to speak one-on-one. It’s getting past their nerves.”

Both agreed, however, that they were worried about the future for Odyssey of the Mind, whose statewide numbers are increasingly starting to dwindle over the years. All four of SATEC’s teams did well at state this year, Tetreault said, but they also had only a handful of teams to compete with.

SATEC’s teams are made up of students from both St. Albans and Fairfield and while only one of SATEC’s four teams is bound for World Finals, all four qualified.

There’s a cost barrier, according to Tetreault, that generally requires a pretty active fundraising effort on the part of the team looking to make the trek to World Finals. The SATEC team that is headed to Lansing, Mich., for 2019’s finals has to manage raising $5,000 by the time they begin packing cars for the road trip west.

According to the students in that team, nerves are jittery but everyone’s excited.

“I just loved it so much last year that I wanted to do it again,” Mason Conner said.

“It’s epic!” exclaimed fourth-grader Julia Larivee.