All About OM

Practice Drills

Stories & Humor


World Finals


Odyssey of the Mind Creativity Site
The OM Spontaneous Archive





Hands-On Problems

First... a challenge!

  • While experimenting with structure-building materials, Matt's team found a way to hold up more than 50 nails (about 1.5" long, with heads about 1 cm diameter) at least five inches above the table, with only eight pieces of dry spaghetti and a sheet of sticky Avery labels. Can you?

    And now... an answer!

Between the Bricks by Lee Semel

  • Summary: The team will build a structure as tall as possible. The structure may touch only the vertical surfaces of two bricks.
  • Equipment: Two bricks, each with one side (a long side perpendicular to the floor) painted black. Materials to build a structure. A competition area 3 feet by 3 feet. Materials to build a structure: drinking straws, toothpicks, clay, sandpaper, string, index cards, adhesive labels.
  • Problem: You will have 8 minutes to design, build, and test a structure that spans a gap between two bricks. The strucutre may touch only the black surfaces of the bricks, not the floor, or any other side of the bricks. You may move the bricks within the competition area, but may not turn them.
  • Scoring: Height of the structure times the distance spanned. If the structure touches the floor or any side of the bricks other than the painted sides, must be fixed before being scored.
  • Variation: Attach a block to the black surfaces of the bricks so that there is a minimum distance that must be spanned.

One City Block by Lee Semel

  • Builders in cities have to squeeze the most space out of a small area of ground.
  • Mark off a 3 inch by 3 inch square on the table top. Your problem is to build a structure that supports as much weight as possible at least 5" high, and can only touch the table inside the square.
  • Score for weight and height of the highest weight.

Earthquake! by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: 40 index cards, 10 strands spaghetti, ball of clay, four labels, 10 nails, shoebox, heavy can or ball, ramp, electrical tape to mark the floor.
  • Setup: Place the ramp on the floor, mark its position and tape it down. Make two marks with the tape 5 and 10 inches away from the ramp.
  • Problem: You must build a structure, using the shoebox as the base, which can withstand an "earthquake" generated by rolling the can down the ramp and it hitting the box. No part of the structure may touch the floor, no part of the shoebox can be attached to the floor, and the can and ramp cannot be modified. You have 4 minutes to build a structure on the box, after which the box must be placed at the 10 inch line, and the judge will roll the can. 1 point for each inch of height remaining after impact. You then have 2 minutes to repair and modify the structure, after which the shoebox will be placed at the 5 inch line, and the can rolled. 2 points for each inch of height remaining after impact.
  • Variation: Try to make the structure support nails or marbles at least 5 inches above the top of the box. Then roll the can, and score based on how many remain after impact.

Bridge Building by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: 40 index cards, 10 strands spaghetti, 4 gum labels, clay, nails
  • Setup: Mark off two 6x6 squares with the masking tape, 6 inches apart.
  • Problem: You must connect the squares with a bridge at least 5.5 inches off the table top (i.e. greater than the height of an index card). The structure may only touch the table inside the squares. The structure must support nails.
  • Scoring: For each nail supported ABOVE A SQUARE, 1 point. For each nail supported ON THE BRIDGE, BETWEEN THE SQUARES, 4 points. The lowest point of a nail must be 5 inches (1 index card height) off the table to count for score. You get 8 minutes to build and add nails.
  • Variation: Try to support marbles instead. Or give points based on the height of the highest nail.

No Man's Land by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: Masking tape (to mark the floor), any small heavy object to be supported by a structure, ruler, index cards, Scotch tape (12"), paper cups (4), straws, spaghetti, other materials to make a structure
  • Setup: Mark a 6" by 6" square inside a 32" by 32" square. This means that each side of the smaller square is 13 inches from the edge of the larger square. Put the object in the center square.
  • Problem: You must build a structure that supports the object. The structure must be entirely within the smaller square. The larger square is the boundary of "No Man's Land". No part of your body or clothing may cross this boundary; only the materials given to you may pass through. The object to be supported may never leave the larger square.
  • Scoring: You have eight minutes to build the structure. For each inch the object is raised off the ground, you receive 10 points. For each time the boundary of No Man's Land is violated by a team member, lose 30 points. For each time the object to be supported leaves the center square, lose 15 points. If the object should leave No Man's Land, lose 50 points.

Buried Treasure by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: 64 index cards, an object to mark the position of the "treasure hunter", paper, toothpicks, straws, tape, foil, etc.
  • Setup: Mark and arrange the 64 index cards on the floor as shown below. Turn the cards face down.
    3                 25
    30 -5 1 -3 10 15 3 1 -10 3
    -20 -15 3 5 3 -30 -5 -40 -5 1
    5 5 15 3 5 -25 50 -10 5 10
    -5 3 -1 5 10 -50 -30 -25 10 5
    3 1 -5 5 5 20 1 -3 3 5
    -5 -1 1 3 10 10 5 10 -10 -3
    Start                 25
  • Problem: Each card represents a position on a desert island. Some of them have valuable treasure, marked with positive point values. Others have hazards, marked with negative point values. You're going to go on a treasure hunt, trying to find the good cards and avoiding the bad ones.
  • You will divide the team into two groups, of any size you choose. One group will leave the room. The cards will be turned face up, and the group in the room will use these materials to mark the terrain, so that after the cards are flipped face down, the second group, the "treasure hunters", can find the valuable spaces and avoid the harmful ones. It is illegal to alter the cards themselves in any way, such as writing on them or taping them, or to change their positions. No language may be used in marking the terrain, though the group members may talk amongst themselves.

    When the first group is done, or when time expires, it will flip the cards face down and leave the room. The second group will enter, and will hunt for the treasure. They will place a marker on "Start", and may move it to any adjacent card, turning that card over and earning the number of points shown. Diagonal moves are allowed, but no backtracking. If you get stuck, you must stop. The process may be repeated until the team decides to stop, or until time expires.

  • Timing: The first group will have 6 minutes to plan a strategy and mark the cards. The second group will have four minutes to hunt for treasure.
  • Scoring: The team's score will be the sum of the numbers on the cards turned up by the treasure hunters.

This Problem Takes Balls (And Batteries, and Soup Cans) by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: A marble, a foam ball, a C battery, a tennis ball, a volleyball, a full soup can, a soccer ball, materials to make a bridge (paper, index cards, tape, string, spaghetti, marshmallows, etc.)
  • Setup: Set up two tables 9" apart.
  • Problem: In this problem you have to build a structure that bridges the two tables. No part of your bridge may descend below the plane of the table tops, and the total length of your construction must be less than 18". Once you've built your bridge, we will see how strong it is by propelling various objects across it. From a line two feet away from the hole, you will roll objects across the bridge. Each successful roll will earn you points. No part of your body, clothing, etc. may cross the plane of this line during a roll. If your bridge breaks, TOO BAD! YOU LOSE! A roll is defined as such: an object traverses the bridge such that whenever it is two feet or less from the closer side of the hole, the table or bridge is supporting the object's weight. (The object may not be thrown, for instance.) You may attach parts to the objects.
  • Timing: You have six minutes to build and test your bridge. You have two minutes to roll objects for score.
  • Scoring: Once your two minutes begins, you may choose to roll any object, as many times as you want, in any order, from either direction across the bridge, until time is up or the bridge can no longer support an object. Scoring is as follows:
    • Team member crosses a line two feet away from the chasm, -15
      Foam ball traverses the bridge, +1
      Marble traverses the bridge, +2
      Battery traverses the bridge, +3
      Tennis ball traverses the bridge, +4
      Volleyball traverses the bridge, +5
      Soccer ball traverses the bridge, +7
      Soup can traverses the bridge, +10
      Improper roll (not touching at all times), no score

This Problem Also Takes Balls (And Batteries, and Soup Cans) by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: A marble, a foam ball, a C battery, a tennis ball, a volleyball, a full soup can, a soccer ball, materials to make structures (paper, index cards, tape, string, spaghetti, marshmallows, etc.)
  • Problem: Build a structure or structures that support these objects as high above the table top as possible. The objects may be part of the structures.
  • Timing: You have eight minutes to build your structures.
  • Scoring: Measurements are taken from lowest point of the objects. If a ball falls before the judge gets to measure it, TOO BAD! For each inch above five, score as follows:
    • Foam ball, +1
      Marble, +1
      Battery, +2
      Tennis, +2
      Volleyball, +3
      Soccer ball, +4
      Soup can, +5

Over the Edge by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: Materials to make a structure (paper, index cards, tape, string, spaghetti, marshmallows, etc.), uniform weights (nails, marbles, coins), ruler
  • Problem: Build a structure that extends off the end of the table and supports weight. The structure must be no wider than 5", and only 1/3 of its length may be on the table. The other 2/3 must extend over the edge of the table.
  • Timing: You have eight minutes to build your structure and add weight.
  • Scoring: For each inch the structure extends off the table, earn 10 points. For each weight it holds (on the part over the table), earn 1/2 point. For each weight it holds on the part extending off the table, earn three points. For each 1/4" or fraction thereof of excess width, lose 15 points. For each 1/4" or fraction thereof of excess length above the 1/3 permitted, lose 15 points. (If the structure is 10" long, and 4" is on the table, there is an excess of 4-10/3 inches, or 2/3 of an inch, for a penalty of 45 points.) All lengths are measured in the horizontal plane of the table, so if the structure sags, a loss of length is incurred.

Structure Store by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: Materials to make a structure (paper, index cards, tape, string, spaghetti, marshmallows, etc.), uniform weights (nails, marbles, coins). Divide the materials and the weights into five groups, each with a different set of some (but not all) of the materials, in different amounts.
  • Problem: You will build a structure that holds as much weight as possible, as high as possible above the base. There are various materials to build the structure with, divided into five groups. To build your structure, you may 'buy' two groups of materials from the store, and you may use only these materials in your structure. Luckily, this store has a liberal return policy: you may, once during the problem, return one of your selections in its entirety, in exchange for a new group of materials. Barring this one return, all 'sales' are final.
  • Timing: You have six minutes to build your structure and add weight.
  • Scoring: Measure the height of the bottom-most weight, earn ten points per inch. Earn one point per weight.

Rubber Band Stretch Structure by Lee Semel

  • Equipment: Materials to make a structure (paper, index cards, tape, string, spaghetti, marshmallows, etc.). Rubber bands.
  • Setup: Mark a square of interior dimensions three inches by three inches.
  • Problem: You will build a structure that holds rubber bands outstretched. No part of the structure may adhere or be attached to the table. The base of the structure will be no bigger than three inches by three inches.
  • Timing: You have six minutes to build your structure and add rubber bands.
  • Scoring: Take the sum of the lengths of the outstretched rubber bands, and subtract from this the equivalent length of the same number of unstretched rubber bands. For instance, if there are five rubber bands stretched to a total of 45 inches, and unstretched one such rubber band is only four inches around, the score is 45 - 4x5 = 20 points. (Rubber bands may be stretched in any direction or more than one direction. Take the approximate lengths all the way around the band, rounding up to the nearest 1/16th inch for each direction.) If the structure fails to hold or a rubber band snaps, TOO BAD!



  • Equipment: Choose 5 unusual objects. Make a set of index cards, each with the names of 1, 2, or 3 of the objects, in any order. Repetitions on the cards are allowed.
  • Setup: Arrange 5 chairs in a circle, backs facing the center. The first chair should be within reach of the cards, the last within reach of the objects. A judge should be stationed at each end of the semicircle.
  • Problem: You must devise a nonverbal communications system to communicate the name and order of the objects on the cards. Each of you will sit in a chair. The person near the cards will flip a card and communicate the objects it names to the next person. The second person will communicate them to the third person, and so on. The last person will pick up the objects and show them to the judge, in order.
  • Scoring: You get 1 point for each object correctly picked up by the last person. After the first team member communicates the card's contents, someone should give the card to the scoring judge.
  • Timing: You have 2 minutes to devise a system, during which all team members may talk and examine the objects, and 3 minutes to perform for score.

Brake Test

  • Equipment: A ramp, tape measure, various parts with which to construct small vehicles (be creative!), weights (nails or coins)
  • Setup: Unroll the tape measure to a length of 72 inches, and place the end against a wall. Set up the ramp at the other end.
  • Problem: The team must construct two vehicles using the materials provided. When time ends, the judges will release each vehicle from the top of the ramp, and score them based on distance traveled. The vehicles must stop before hitting the wall.
  • Timing: The team has eight minutes to construct and test the vehicles.
  • Scoring: Take measurements from the front of each vehicle. For each vehicle, one point per inch past the ramp. If the vehicle hits the wall, subtract 24 points, and 6 points for each inch it bounces back. All measurements should be made in the direction of the tape measure only (i.e. if the vehicle veers off to the side, extend a line across to the tape measure.) Score 1-15 points for how well the team works together, and 1-15 points for the creativity of each vehicle.

Three Peanut Stories submitted by Dr. Peter M. Silvaggio

  • Equipment: 50 round toothpicks, 1 to 2 oz. clay, 4 pieces of cardboard (4" square), 12 oz. plastic cup, bag of peanuts in the shell
  • Problem: Build a three-story structure with the cardboard between the "floors". A story must be at least 1/2 a toothpick high. After time expires, place the cup on the top story. Each team member, in turn, adds a peanut (only incidental touching allowed). The team gets to eat all the peanuts the structure will hold.
  • Timing: You have one minute of discussion, three minutes of construction time. No limit to peanut time.
  • Scoring: Peanuts held & eaten.
  • Variation: The team only gets to eat the peanuts in the cup if the structure does not collapse. The structure must stand for 15 seconds. When one team member stops adding peanuts, the team is done.

Tower of Foam submitted by Dr. Peter M. Silvaggio

  • Equipment: 50 straws with wrappers, can of shaving cream
  • Setup: Place materials on a table covered with a plastic garbage bag.
  • Problem: Build a structure as tall as possible.
  • Timing: One minute to discuss, three minutes to build.
  • Comment: An excellent recruiting example.

Balloon Propulsion submitted by Lon Badgett

  • Synopsis: Using only propulsion from balloons, propel as much cargo as far as possible down a 20" length of taut fishing line.
  • Equipment: Two deflated 8" balloons, about a foot of duct tape, and 10 cargo objects such as: six to twelve inches of bendable copper wire, five paper clips, one ounce of soft clay, two straws, and a ping-pong ball.
  • Setup: Tie 20 lb. or higher fishing line at waist level between two posts at least 20 feet apart. Attach a two-inch piece of tape one foot from one end of the line.
  • Problem: You will be given ten cargo objects, some tape, and two balloons. Using only the balloons as a source of propulsion, you must propel as much cargo as far as you can along the fishing line. You will have five minutes to practice and five minutes more to complete your solution. Talking is allowed at any time. You may experiment with the balloons in any way you wish, but you will receive only two balloons total. If you damage or destroy a balloon in practice, it will not be replaced. The fishing line has been marked with a piece of tape about one foot from the starting point. You may not alter, retrieve, touch, or disturb the line or any cargo hanging on it beyond this marker. You may retrieve cargo or balloons that come off the line and use them again.
  • Scoring: Ten points per foot per object transported. For example, three objects propelled more than five feet but less than six feet would be 3 (objects) x 5 (full feet) x 10 points = 150 points. Objects must remain attached to or suspended from the line to count for score. 500 point bonus for traveling the entire length of the line and hitting the other end.
  • Penalties: Touching the line or cargo past the marker, 100 points.
  • Note to Coaches: Explore the possibility of taking one or more penalties on purpose to achieve a higher score. Explore the elastic qualities of the balloon (rubber band?) as an alternative to the propulsion method. Explore which objects may be sent as cargo and which are risky. Discuss the five minute experimental stage for clues about team interaction. This problem can also be run by two teams on opposite ends of a fishing line. You can also add extra points for solutions under 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc.
Hey you. Yeah, I'm talkin' to you. You got a problem? Then submit it to the Spontaneous Archive! Created by Lee and Matthew Semel