Jacquelyn Blevins: A Fish Story, with Green Cats

Goldfish. Catfish. Tuna fish. The middle-schoolers sitting around Jacquelyn Blevins’s office were naming every kind of fish they could think of.

Jacquelyn Blevins

“It looked like they were having a lot of fun,” says Blevins, a software support technologist and pupil accounting coordinator for the Smyrna School District, as well as a two-time graduate of Wilmington University. “What they were doing was practicing their spontaneous competition skills for an upcoming Odyssey of the Mind event.”

That wasn’t the only challenge on the middle-schoolers’ minds, though. They told Blevins that their team wouldn’t be able to participate in the extracurricular creative-problem-solving competition unless they found a judge to moderate the event. Was she, by any chance, available on Saturday?

Ten years later, Blevins — who’s now the volunteer director of Delaware Odyssey of the Mind — spent this past spring planning and managing the scholastic competition’s annual events. The qualifying tournaments at Lake Forest High School in Felton and Smyrna High School, followed by the finals at William Henry Middle School in Dover, enlightened and entertained nearly 2,000 students, ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, from across the state.

Then she led “Team Delaware,” an entourage of about 400 students, coaches, officials and family members, to the Odyssey of the Mind world finals at Michigan State University the week before Memorial Day. Plus, she’d helped develop challenges for the Maryland-District of Columbia Odyssey of the Mind’s winter events.

“I started out in OM accidentally,” she says, “but once I saw what it was all about, I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of. I just fell in love with the positive effects it has on kids.”

Those positive effects include the teamwork involved in collaborating with a diverse group of classmates, exposure to real-life applications of STEM and problem-solving skills, and opportunities for creative expression.

In the competitions, teams of seven present their best solutions to the challenges they’ve chosen to work on for several months, such as constructing a balsa wood bridge that can support increasing weight, writing and acting out a silent movie on stage, or operating a vehicle that can be assembled from the contents of two suitcases.

In addition to these long-term challenges, they also match wits with other teams in spontaneous challenges, generating solutions to problems they haven’t previously seen, such as naming fish, improvising a method of communication from random household items, or MacGyvering a machine to move tennis balls into buckets across the room.

Both the long-term and the spontaneous challenges introduce student participants to professional project management. “It’s great life skills training, and a great teaching tool, for them,” says Blevins. “Seeing what the kids do, you get the sense that you’re investing in their future.”

The ways of thinking that Odyssey of the Mind promotes among students may have inspired Blevins herself, who put project management to use as she studied toward a Master of Science in Information Systems Technologies (which she earned in 2014) and her Master of Business Administration in Management of Information Systems (2016) at WilmU.

The advanced degrees, which she earned while working full-time at Smyrna School District and volunteering with Delaware Odyssey of the Mind, were a long-term challenge in themselves. Her return to school to upgrade her technology skills, 25 years after earning a business bachelor’s degree from Delaware State University, was a decision she didn’t make lightly.

“I was nervous,” she recalls. Arriving at the Wilson Graduate Center for an introductory infor-mation session, “it took me 30 minutes to get out of my car. But when I finally went in, I felt like I was among people who cared about my educational goals. I’m really glad that I did. I really liked what
WilmU offered.”

Once Team Delaware returned from Michigan State, Delaware Odyssey of the Mind took a summer break. Blevins and her team will start doing the groundwork for next year’s competitions — creating challenges, rounding up judges and awards, even securing health permits for food trucks at the events — in August, before school starts.

That’s the only downside of the two years she’s been director, she says: more management of the organization means less personal interaction with the students who participate in it.

“You learn so much from them, and how they interact,” says Blevins. “As you get older, you’re much more jaded. But everything is possible with them. Sometimes the little kids can make things work even better than the older kids.”

For instance, “as adults, we know that cats aren’t green. But if kids need the idea of green cats to solve a problem, cats can be green, and it’s OK. They’re OK with thinking outside the box. Their ideas really work,” she says. “It makes you want to be a kid again.”

   ­—David Bernard

To learn more about Delaware Odyssey of the Mind, visit deootm.org.