"Chaos! Chaos!" bellowed toga-clad Kyle Rose, 13, performing on-stage at the University of Maryland Baltimore County yesterday in his middle school's shorthand version of the destruction of Pompeii.
It's true, the Catonsville campus was aswarm with nearly 1,500 Maryland youths from kindergarten through high school for the state finals of the IBM-sponsored "Odyssey of the Mind" competition.
But this kind of chaos makes teachers and parents smile, as their kids slugged it out in such creativity-challenging events as the Pompeii play, flinging tennis balls at targets with homemade catapults and building small balsa-wood structures to withstand hundreds of pounds.
"I got involved because I was concerned young people didn't have the means to put together solutions creatively. There was no room in school for fooling around with ideas," said Pat Swanson, the Prince George's County English teacher who serves as state director.
Odyssey of the Mind was begun in 1978 by Samuel Miklus of Glassboro State College in New Jersey and has expanded throughout the United States and into at least seven foreign countries, with "world finals" set for May 23-25 at the University of Tennessee.
In Maryland, eight regions held preliminary competitions in March, and school teams from 18 counties participated in yesterday's state contest, accompanied by hundreds of parents, cheerleading classmates and volunteer judges.
Students competed in events according to their grade level, with separate divisions for elementary, middle and high schools. And each event required "style," a context of costumes and imaginative skits and music to complement the problem-solving.
Kyle -- a student at Edgewood Middle School and, at 6 feet 4 inches, "too big to play middle school football" -- was just the right size to play "Old Pliny" in "an original performance set in the ancient city of Pompeii before or during its devastation" by Mount Vesuvius in 79.
On a nearby stage, five youths from Kingsville Elementary School romped through a wise-cracking takeoff on morning television they called "Good Morning, Pompeii!," complete with characters Joan Lava, Pompeii the weatherman, Mount Vesuvius, Mona Lisa and Magma P.I.
"It's a chance for them to cut loose," said coach Amy DeNike, a third-grade teacher at Kingsville. Her pupils' imagination paid off: They went on to take first place in the elementary division.
In a UMBC gymnasium, the "Rat Busters" of Damascus Elementary School strutted their stuff in the "buggy lite" event, which required teams to build an ultra-lightweight, battery-powered vehicle that could steer, go backward and forwards and pull a small trailer around a course.
Their creative solution? Put their smallest team member, Jimmy Parks, behind the wheel of a 4-foot-long papier-mache "ratmobile." It pulled a cheese-shaped trailer around the course while Jimmy passed out mousetraps, all to the tune of the weirdly appropriate "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite.
"These kids learn teamwork, they have to be competitive and use all the disciplines: industrial arts, home economics, art, language, science and math and engineering," said Gene Lawrence, a judge for one of the events and principal at Hamilton Middle School.
Teams also faced a "spontaneous" event requiring quick-thinking. Although this year's challenges were kept secret, one example from the past was, "Name everything you can think of that's blue, in 2 or 3 minutes," Mrs. Swanson said.
Among the most entertaining of the events was the balsa-wood experiment, with the structure subjected to increasing weight until it collapsed. Students competed while performing in character, including Sesame Street animals and the three little pigs.
Everyone was abuzz when the structure built by a team from T. C. Martin Elementary School in Charles County withstood a whopping 770.25 pounds, a first-place performance in the elementary division. Next highest was Thomas Stone High School, also in Charles County, at 742 pounds.
"Most of their structure appeared to be the vertical bars, they fit it together very carefully, and I think it helps to use the best balsa wood you can find," said judge Terry Morton, a materials engineer for the Navy. "Sometimes, it helps to be lucky."
Hamilton Middle School's young engineer was Emmanuel Botzolakis, 12, whose intricately glued little tower finally gave up the ghost at 355.25 pounds.
"I built 30 of them," he said. "One let go at 33 pounds, one at 455. It's hard to say why this one didn't make it."
What does he want to be when he grows up? "A surgeon," Emmanuel said.