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By: Daiancy Aquino

Carteret School District will host the New Jersey State Finals of the Odyssey of the Mind tournament Saturday, April 13. Ninety teams from across New Jersey will compete for a chance to advance to Odyssey’s World Finals held in Iowa this May.

Carteret, New Jersey – Odyssey of the Mind (OOTM) is a creative problem solving competition for primary and secondary students. Think of a cross between your school theater production and robotics club, or a mash-up of Math Olympiad and Acapella, or a combination of band pit-crew and theater stage-crew.  Teams of seven students meet for months to plan, build and solve one of five possible problems, culminating in an eight minute long term presentation showcasing their solutions. They have to adhere to a strict budget limit, and must do everything without adult involvement.


Carteret Odyssey of the Mind team at Gateway Regional Tournament on April 9, 2024 hosted by JP Stevens High School, Edison

One of those 90 teams hoping to advance to World Finals is Carteret High School’s Problem 2 Technical Team, composed of seniors Mason Diaz, Mark Patricks, Dhruv Prajapati, and  Joshua Vitug, juniors Michelle Hernandez, and Sukhveen Gill and sophomore Daiancy Aquino. This will be Hernandez’s fourth State Finals competition, and her possible fifth time heading to World Finals. “I’m so glad that with all the effort I put into Odyssey in the past 6 years it rewarded me and the rest of Carteret with the privilege of hosting State Finals 2024!  I can’t wait to perform at my own school,” said Hernandez. Diaz and Aquino are also returning World Finals competitors.  Last year their team placed in the top ten for their problem and division at the 2023 World Finals. Being the host school is thrilling for Aquino: “If someone told me three years ago Carteret would be the one hosting New Jersey State Finals for a worldwide problem solving competition, I would be in utter disbelief.  Here we are though!  I’ll be looking for you from our FLOAT! You’ll have to be there to understand.  Viva La Carnaval!” Senior Mason Diaz has a much more practical view of hosting State Finals: “Even though it’s only my second year in Odyssey, I’m honored Carteret is hosting for the first time! But, I’m honestly more excited for the fact that we don’t have to load our props on the truck!”


Nick Pankiewicz, New Jersey Odyssey of the Mind association director and his wife Sarah Pankiewicz, assistant association director, trace their involvement in the program back to when they were in high school. After competing in the tournament while students at Ewing High School, the alumni came back to pass on their love of Odyssey of the Mind to the future generations. “Odyssey of the Mind is the world’s premiere creative problem solving competition for K-12 students. For almost 50 years Odyssey of the Mind has brought together students from over 30 states and 15 countries to solve six different problems, all of which include multiple elements of STEAM education,” Nick said. According to the Pankiewiczs, Odyssey of the Mind has its roots in the Industrial Design classes of Dr. Sam Micklus. Dr. Sam (as he’s affectionately known in Odyssey circles) was a professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey (formerly Glassboro State College), where he challenged his students to create vehicles without wheels, mechanical pie throwers and flotation devices that would take them across a course on a lake. He evaluated them not on the success of their solutions, but on the ingenuity applied and the risk involved in trying something new and different. Students had fun, word spread and the students’ activities attracted attention from the local media. Soon, people on the outside wanted in on the action. This public interest led to the development of a creative problem-solving competition for school children. In 1978, Odyssey of the Mind was born. It is because of this history that the New Jersey association of Odyssey of the Mind is proud to be known as the birthplace of creative problem solving.


To qualify for State Finals, teams had to medal at one of three NJOOTM Regional competitions. The Gateway region is Union County and northern Middlesex County, the Skyland region is southern Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset counties and all counties north and the Coastal Plains Region is Mercer and Monmouth Counties and all counties south. Carteret’s central location makes it an ideal spot to hold State Finals. But according to Sarah, that’s not the only reason: “We are very excited to bring the New Jersey Odyssey of the Mind State Finals to Carteret for the first time. Since they joined the program back in 2018, Carteret Schools have been a fierce competitor and dedicated proponent of teaching creative problem solving to their students,” Sarah said. Carteret Odyssey Coach, Sheila O’Hare Barrows, believes the continued success of the Carteret team is attributable to their “work ethic, tenacity, and willingness to fail forward.”  According to O’Hare Barrows: “The Odyssey program gives our students the space to be risk-takers, to experiment without the fear of failure. Each failed attempt teaches them something.  They also develop tremendous team-work skills.  They learn to honestly critique each other’s ideas without put-downs, knowing that the singular goal is the team’s success, not any one individual’s. It’s rare to find an opportunity like this for students in today’s educational environment.” 


Asked what she thinks about Carteret hosting State Finals, O’Hare Barrows replied: “Ten years ago, I brought my daughter to her first State Finals at Ewing High School. It’s  wonderful to be hosting, and to have the opportunity to introduce the larger Carteret community to OOTM!”

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