Nikki Oliver, Lisa Hackney and Amanda Hackney recently won fourth place in the college division of the Odyssey of the Mind competition at Iowa State University, portraying nuns in search of an ancient Egyptian mystery.

Though they’re dressed as faux nuns, these women aren’t odd. They’re on an odyssey — an Odyssey of the Mind, in fact.

The program (www.OdysseyoftheMind.com) rewards ingenuity and creativity during problem-solving exercises.

Lisa Hackney, her daughter Amanda, and Amanda’s friend, Nikki Oliver, recently won fourth place in the Division IV World Finals at Iowa State University. Lisa Hackney, a teacher at Dalton Middle School, has been a longtime sponsor of the program in Dalton Public Schools.

“I brought the program to Dalton Public Schools 15 years ago when I was a teacher at Brookwood,” Lisa said. “I’d coached both my daughters over the years, and they said, ‘OK, you’ve been helping us all these years. Now it’s your turn.’”

Smithsonian Magazine has described the World Finals as “a dizzying four-day thinkathon that looks like some kind of kooky cross between science fair, masquerade party, performing arts fest and the Olympics.”

Each year, the Odyssey of the Mind organization presents “Long-Term Problems” in five themed areas. Problem 1 deals with constructing a vehicle; Problem 2 is technical; Problem 3 involves the classics; Problem 4 is structural and engineering-oriented; Problem 5 is pure drama.

A sixth, noncompetitive category initiates students in grades K-2 into the program. The other five problems are divided into four age divisions. The Hackneys’ team competed in the division for college students.

Lisa Hackney is working on a Ph.D. online through Walden University. Amanda Hackney is a student at the University of West Georgia, and Oliver is a Dalton State College student. They tackled Problem 3, which had the theme of “Ancient Egypt” this year.

For Problem 3, teams of up to seven people created and presented performances that included a scene set in ancient Egypt. The presentations had to include either a pharaoh, king or queen, and ancient Egyptian works of art/artifacts created by the teams. The performances also had to include an explanation about the construction of an ancient Egyptian architectural structure and a plot twist.

“We picked Queen Nefertari — not to be confused with Nefertiti — as our subject,” Hackney said. “We dressed as nuns investigating why Nefertari’s children didn’t ascend to the throne. As victims of the Biblical plague, Nefertari and Ramesses the Great’s eldest son went with all the others in the Passover situation.”

The king’s first son, the “Crown Prince,” was never able to be groomed for the responsibilities of becoming pharaoh and a “living god” to the people of Egypt.

“We made five different artifacts to use in our skit — an Egyptian vase, jewelry, a death mask, a ‘sennet’ game table and papyrus,” Hackney said. “The subject matter got us talking about religion, and we thought, ‘What’s symbolic of religion? Who would be researching this problem?’ Obviously if you stay in the box, you don’t do as well.”

Team members researched the subject over a couple of months before presenting their eight-minute performance in Iowa.

“It’s a creativity competition, and you’re encouraged to be as creative and unusual as possible. But you have to know what you’re talking about,” Hackney said. “There are no wrong answers. It’s not choosing between A, B, C or D. It lets kids stretch, but they must have their research in mind.”

Hackney said the program teaches students of all ages — team members at the competition ranged in age from 6 to 67 — to think on their feet. She likened it to the television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” that features spontaneous skits that flow from a situation or an unusual prop.

“That show’s actually one of my students’ learning tools. We watch and talk about what we thought was especially creative and what wasn’t,” she said. “Each team has to do all the research and make all its props and costumes. It’s amazing what children can do with duct tape and Styrofoam.”

Dalton Middle School has hosted regional competitions the past 10 years. The 1997 Dalton Junior High team included Hackney’s daughter Julia Hackney, 23, and won the World Finals against 50 teams in its division. This year’s state competition was held in Columbus, and the World Finals will be at Michigan State University next year.

“The World Finals are truly an international competition. One team was from Cameroon,” Hackney said. “There were 10,000 people competing in all. I was deeply impressed with all the students’ research of ancient Egypt. It was truly amazing.”

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