July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

Crawling across the floor, the pajama-clad figures carried out their assignment with ferocious intensity. They had nine minutes to organize 50 mousetraps so that they would set off a chain reaction that would explode a balloon, set off cannons, activate a tape deck to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 and finish with a rubber chicken laying an egg (actually a golf ball) that rolls down a ramp and rings a bell.

The perpetrators were five talented teenagers from Galway (N.Y.) High School. Last April the mousetrap chain reaction was one of the tests set for them during the New York State finals of Odyssey of the Mind. A creative problem-solving competition for students from kindergarten through college, OM is the brainchild of Sam Micklus, 52, a professor at New Jersey’s Glassboro State College. It got its start in a pie-throwing contest Micklus devised for his industrial-design class at Glassboro in 1960. Micklus challenged his students to find a way of throwing a pie without using their hands. “One guy mashed the pie all up and shot it through an airgun,” Micklus says with a chuckle. “Others used catapults. At the end they were all supposed to throw the pies at each other. Instead they threw them at me.” Everyone had so much fun—even Micklus—that he began creating other contests. In 1978, the first state championship drew participants from 28 high schools and middle schools, and an educational foundation gave Micklus the financing to expand beyond New Jersey.

Expand he did. This year more than 250,000 youngsters took part in the competition, representing some 5,000 schools in 47 states. Last month, 602 winning teams at the state level vied in the world finals at Central Michigan University. The aim, says Micklus, is to help people “consider possibilities rather than limitations,” a goal he believes conventional education largely ignores. “I don’t think we’ve ever addressed creativity in our education,” he says. “It’s not something we value that much. Instead we value the high achievers, and teachers like things that are easy to grade. No wonder some of these kids are bored to death.”

To stimulate the students’ imaginations, Micklus has designed problems both artistic and structural. “Humor From Homer” required students to make up their own story, but one that would be consistent with the style and tone of the Odyssey. “Moby Dick” challenged teams to create and perform another chapter of Melville’s whaling epic. Young builders are challenged to erect balsa wood structures not more than 11 inches high yet capable of supporting about 600 pounds. Kindergarten kids throw tea parties demonstrating their creativity by inviting imaginary guests. “These kids come up with some of the most creative solutions,” says Micklus, “probably because nobody has bothered to tell them it’s impossible.”

Schools joining OM receive seven problems by mid-September. Team tryouts are held, and the chosen students begin formulating their strategy. Coaches are usually teachers, though former Gov. Richard Lamm once took a team as far as the Colorado state finals. (Farmers have coached too, and Micklus considers them natural problem-solvers: “If a farmer has a 2,000-pound bull that doesn’t want to get on a truck, he has to figure out how to get him on.”) Many students in OM are enrolled in programs for the gifted, but Micklus doesn’t believe there is necessarily any correlation between IQ or grades and creativity. “Kids who win here are probably not A students,” he says.

An average student himself, Micklus grew up in southern New Jersey in a low-income family that had an outhouse and no indoor plumbing until he was 5. Still, his father, a custodian, and his mother, a housewife, managed to send their only child to Philadelphia College of Art, where he received a degree in industrial design. In 1968 he joined the Glassboro teaching staff, and later earned his doctorate at New York University. As long as OM continues to grow, Micklus’ life will continue to be filled with the problem of devising new problems. He finds it an endless, though not unpleasant quest. “I’ll be driving along and see a sign that says, ‘Lunch, worms and gas,’ ” he says, “and I’ll know that there’s a problem in that somewhere.”

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