As a graduate student, Lynn Van Poolen Larsen ’90 had never heard of Odyssey of the Mind (OM)—until she saw a call for judges for an OM competition. She and her husband, Paul Larsen ’89, signed up. They figured they would commit two Saturday afternoons, earn a few extra dollars for groceries, and be done.
“The enthusiasm, creativity, and teamwork of the kids participating was infectious!” Lynn said. “We decided that if we ever had kids we would love to have them involved in Odyssey.”
When they did have children—twins Hannah and Zachary—there was no OM program in their Riverside, California, school district. They offered to start one.
An international competition, Odyssey of the Mind asks teams of elementary through college students to solve problems in five categories. All problems involve both technical and performance components and reward out-of-the-box solutions.
A special education major at Calvin and now professor of special education at Brandman University, Lynn saw how the program electrified learning.
“OM provides opportunities for all kinds of kids to shine,” she explained. “Every team needs writers, actors, builders, and engineers. Kids need to work with others who aren’t like them to solve problems creatively. Plus they have to be able to explain their solutions to judges, so they learn how to communicate clearly with adults. It couldn’t be more real-world applicable.”
Though the twins finished competing and went off to Calvin in 2015 (judging OM competitions in their free time), Lynn continued to volunteer. Soon she was asked to be the California state director—also a volunteer position. She agreed because she had a vision for changes that could open the program to more students. In 2016 California won the OM international association growth award. More than 700 teams now compete in 10 regions across the state.
Lynn will oversee the biggest change next year when the state association splits into two: NorCal and SoCal. Again her aim is to bring even more students into the program, including students with developmental disabilities.
When people wonder how she’s taken on what is sometimes a second full-time job, she credits Paul, her “unseen assistant director.” When people wonder why, she says, “Go to one tournament, like Paul and I did. You’ll be hooked!”