Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Power of a Mousetrap Vehicle

The judges and audience members watched as my daughter and her teammates guided their mouse-trap powered vehicle through six tasks and performed a skit related to the vehicle.  They watched as the vehicle moved across the floor, striking a lever and raising a flag.  The students adlibbed when they needed multiple attempts for the vehicle to strike a target.  The judges and audience members listened to the sock puppets, the ventriloquist/rapper, and other characters.  Eventually, my daughter and her Odyssey of the Mind teammates concluded their performance, twenty seconds before reaching the eight-minute time limit.
We can learn a lot from Odyssey of the Mind (OotM) regarding how to engage students in rigorous work.  The mousetrap vehicle challenge has important characteristics, or design qualities, that contribute to student engagement and ultimately student achievement.  The OotM mousetrap vehicle is very powerful in terms of student engagement and achievement.
Let's examine how the mousetrap vehicle challenge exhibits several of the design qualities identified by John Antonetti and Phillip Schlechty in separate works.
Design Qualities
Choice:   Each OotM team chooses one of five problems.  My daughter and her teammates are each taking Physics so they were attracted to the problem which involved designing, building, and operating a vehicle that uses a mousetrap as its only source of energy.  The other problems, including one which involved a classical character acting as a tour guide and one which required constructing a weight-bearing balsa wood structure, were not as appealing to my daughter's team.  They were, however, attracted to the challenge of the mousetrap vehicle problem.  They were much more engaged in their work because they could choose a project of personal interest.   
The challenge was to build a vehicle and guide it through six tasks.  As required, my daughter’s team chose four tasks from among six options, such as driving through a tunnel, hitting a target, changing direction, and making a delivery.  Their vehicle also had to perform two team-created challenges.   (Because the team is still competing, my daughter and her teammates have stressed that I cannot reveal the challenges they created.)  This opportunity to choose which tasks to complete and to design two tasks helped capture and maintain the commitment of the students. 
Clear Expectations/Product Standards: My daughter and her teammates knew what they needed to accomplish.  They knew the scoring standards that would be used to assess their performance.  They knew the different maximum point values of the various tasksThey also knew that they would be judged for the overall creativity of the performance.  The students enjoyed developing the characters of their performance, including a demanding coach, a gamer who thinks he is a dragon, and a ventriloquist/rapper.  Clarity of expectations facilitated the engagement of my daughter and her teammates. 
Learning with Others/Affiliation:  One of my daughter's favorite parts of OotM was being part of a group that wanted to complete at a high level of excellence.  As she explained, the members of her team connected with one another through their OotM work.  It reminds me of Ken Robinson's reflections on the sense of belonging to a tribe with a shared passion.  In The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, he writes that "what connects a tribe is a common commitment."  This connection provides OotM participants with important benefits.  As Robinson writes, "Connecting with people who share the same passions affirms that you're not alone; that there are others like you . . .It doesn't matter whether you like the people as individuals, or even the work they do . . .What matters first is having validation for the passion you have in common."  Not all members of the team socialize with one another outside of OotM, but they enjoyed the many hours spent together preparing for the competition because they shared a passion for their OotM work.
The affiliation among OotM team members encourages each individual to perform at their highest level.  As Robinson observes, "members of a passionate community tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents . . . the opportunities for mutual inspiration can become intense."
Sense of Audience/Affirmation of Performance/Product Focus
The students worked hard creating their product, their performance.  They knew their parents, their friends, and other OotM participants would be watching.  The mother of one of the team members marveled that the students were willing to work so hard preparing for an eight-minute performance, but the students sensed that the performance would be affirming.  The product focus and sense of audience also contributed to the students' willingness to commit to months of preparation for an eight-minute performance.
Levels of Engagement
It is easy to contrast the OotM students' high level of engagement with the other levels of engagement in the Schlechty Center's framework.    Obviously, the students were not in rebellion or in retreat, the two lowest levels of engagement.  They also were not just ritually compliant, going through the motions of doing the work without connecting to the work.  They were not asking the question which typifies the ritual compliance mindset: what is the minimum I have to do?
Some of the students may be strategically compliant at times in school, rather than being authentically engaged.   Perhaps they view some of their work in school as a means to other goals, such as a grade, class rank, or college acceptance.  Schlechty makes three key observations about the implications of strategic compliance:
·        students learn at high levels, but they have a superficial grasp of what they learn;
·        students do not retain as much in comparison with situations in which they are authentically engaged; and
·        students do not transfer what they learn from one context to another as readily as if they are authentically engaged.
The members of my daughter's team clearly were not just strategically compliant.  They were not participating in OotM to be able to list it as an activity on their college application.  Even if resume-building were a part of their initial motivation for participation, the engaging design qualities of the OotM work cultivated authentic engagement.   My daughter's team viewed the mousetrap vehicle challenge as compelling.  Schlechty points out that authentic engagement leads to learning at higher levels, having a deeper grasp of what is learned, retaining learning, and being able to transfer what is learned to new contexts.  One reason for the deeper learning is that authentic engagement is associated with a willingness to persist in the face of difficulty. For example, two nights before the competition, the mouse trap vehicle my daughter's team built still was not consistently travelling far enough. They didn't just give up and say, "We followed the directions and completed the task.  Let's just hope it works."  Instead, they brainstormed a variety of potential solutions.  (I'd like to share how they solved the distance issue to illustrate their problem-solving ability, but they have strictly forbidden me from specifying their solution because they advanced to the state competition!) Though they identified the solution two nights before the competition, they gathered again on the Friday night before the event.  They even negotiated later curfews with their parents to extend their preparations.  This clearly reflects authentic engagement. 
Traditional notions of rigor often reflect a content-coverage mentality.  Content knowledge certainly matters in OotM.  One of my daughter's teammates articulately described how he applied knowledge from his Physics class relating to the radius of a circle in deciding the size of the wheels of the mousetrap vehicle.  They applied this content knowledge and evaluated various options for designing and constructing their mousetrap vehicles.  Clearly, OotM work requires thinking that is at the highest levels of knowledge taxonomies.
OotM work also has several other features that constitute rigor, according to the rigor/relevance framework developed by Phil Daggett's International Center for Leadership in Education.  The learning is interdisciplinary, involving the application of knowledge across disciplines.  Applying knowledge in unpredictable situations is another hallmark of rigor, according to the Center's rigor/relevance framework, and the efforts to guide the vehicle through the various tasks certainly involved a lot of unpredictability.
Another aspect of the rigor of OotM work is the extent to which it requires the skills commonly referred to as 21st century skills.  Students think critically and creatively, solve problems, collaborate, show initiative, and communicate orally.
Implications for Teaching and Learning in Schools
The OotM mousetrap vehicle is very powerful in terms of student engagement and achievement. OotM illustrates that the quality of work given to students matters.  The work of OotM features several important design qualities: choice; clear expectations/product standards; learning with others/affiliation; and sense of audience/affirmation of performance/product focus.  Every state requires teachers to teach the state’s standards for content and skills.  Educators do not need to ignore state standards in order to design engaging work.  However, we need to avoid adopting a content coverage mentality that will lead at best to strategic compliance , which is associated with a superficial grasp of what is learned.  By providing engaging work, we capture the joy of teaching and learning.  Student work does not need to reflect all the design qualities to engage students, but incorporating design qualities will contribute to student engagement and achievement.  Promoting the authentic engagement of students will lead to deeper learning, as well as firmer, longer-lasting mastery of content and skills.
Elizabeth R. Bowen, Student Engagement and Its Relation to Quality Work Design,

John Antonetti:

Phil Daggett, International Center for Leadership in Education:

Rigor/Relevance Framework from International Center for Leadership in Education: http://www.leadered.com/rrr.html

Schlechty Center of Engagement, levels of engagement document:


  1. The Odyssey of the Mind team members at my school have learned valuable skills that they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Aside from the exceptional amount of technical knowledge they have gained, the team has learned what it means to be a functional member of group working towards a common goal. More importantly, they have learned how to stay clam under stress, think on their feet, and solve problems without delay.

    My team participated in the Mouse Mobiles problem. They created six different vehicles, which each completed a different task. During competition the first vehicle broke and would not complete the task. The team members tried to fix this car for several minutes even though they only had a total of 8 minutes of competition time. Wisely, they set the first car aside and completed the next five tasks. After doing so they returned to the first vehicle in an attempt to complete that task. The team repeatedly made adjustments to the car and tried to complete the task. During this time the team members worked together, stayed exceptionally calm, and were focused on nothing but the task at hand. At 7 minutes and 37 seconds the vehicle worked and the team successfully completed their competition with a smile.

    Their 1st place finish on competition day was a result of 6 months of hard work. Many times throughout the year the team and I thought the problem was too difficult to complete. Thankfully the team never gave up. The idea of never giving up will stick with those 7 children for a lifetime.

    R. Winfree
    Odyssey of the Mind Coach

  2. The OMers from my school took on the "Good as Gold...berg" problem this year. A simple item used to perform an everyday task had to be replaced by a complex "machine" containing many extra steps(much like the complex system used in the game of Mousetrap).

    The students developed their solution around the simple task of pushing in a chair. The week of competition, they realized they had misread the problem originally and did not have an actual item to replace (it had to be commercially manufactured and people usually push in chairs with their hands--not going to work!). This was a major problem since their WHOLE solution revolved around pushing in a chair--everything from their actual machine to the plotline and clever puns in their skit. However, they quickly got to work figuring out how they could make their solution work within the requirements while still keeping all the components they had worked so hard on over the past few months. The result was amazing! As far as I know, the judges didn't question their choice of item at all. They made it seem like it was all part of the plan from the beginning.

    I was so proud, not only of their final product, but also for how they worked together through this whole process. The team is not allowed to have any outside assistance, even from the coach, so I could only watch and listen as they hammered out the details. I know they learned a great deal from their experiences on the team this year. It seems like a lot to go through for 8 minutes, but in the end it's not really about those 8 minutes but the journey to get there!

    Rachel McBride
    Coach, THS OotM