Students Coached by Occidental Alumnus Come in 4th in National Science Olympiad

Muscatel Middle School science teacher Jun Lugue '98 M'99 introduced the Science Olympiad to the Rosemead school in 2002 on a lark, as a fun way to get students more interested in math and science.


Since then, Muscatel has become one of the country's powerhouses in the engineering and science competition, racking up awards at the regional, state, and national levels. In May, the Muscatel team placed fourth out of 60 teams in the national competition in Madison, Wis.

Not bad for a young teacher just a few years out of college and for a majority minority school (55 percent Asian and 41 percent Latino) that receives Title 1 federal funding to help low-income students. But perhaps the awards aren't surprising. Muscatel's good scores on state and national tests are the fruit of a challenging academic curriculum, dedicated teachers, and committed students.

Since January, Lugue and his core Science Olympiad team of 15 students, for instance, have been working every day after school for several hours--and all day on Saturdays--on the competition's various challenges. Being on the team is not a given: Students must first pass a written test to get a coveted team spot.

"We made the choice years ago to win," said Lugue, who began teaching at Muscatel soon after graduating from Occidental. "We've learned that this takes a lot of time and hard work. We reach college level material on some of the events, so the students really have to study."

The school has placed first in the Los Angeles regional competition--including the 2011 event held at Occidental on February 26--every year since 2005. Muscatel was also the state Science Olympiad middle school champion in 2006, 2009, and 2010, and 6th in the national competition in 2009.

And on April 9, Muscatel successfully defended its title at the Southern California Science Olympiad, held at Canyon High School in Anaheim, to win its fourth state championship. The victorious team went on to battle other top teams at the 27th annual national Science Olympiad at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, May 18 to 21, coming in fourth place. Out of 23 events, the Muscatel team placed 10th place or higher in 11 events, a record set by this year's team. Nearly 6,000 teams from 49 states compete annually in hopes of reaching the national level. Besides a trophy and bragging rights, winners also receive grants up to $2,000 for their school.

This is eighth-grader Devin Luu's second year as a Science Olympiad team member. When asked why he competes in the math and science challenge, he said, "I just like science. I like physics." He paused, then added, "Mr. L is very nice as long as we work."

Lugue said he, co-teacher Jeff Tulley, and his students work long hours because he wants students to experience what it's like to be on the podium stand. As a student at South-Central Los Angeles's King Drew Magnet High School in the 1990s, Lugue was a member of the school's academic decathlon and model United Nations. But he and his teammates didn't do well because they didn't adequately prepare.

"So I want the kids to experience winning," he said. "We're not all about winning-it's the frosting on the cake. I also want them to enjoy the experience of solving problems."

Lugue, who graduated from Occidental with a bachelor's degree in biology and a master of arts in teaching, didn't initially want to become a teacher. His plan was to go to medical school and become a doctor. As an undergraduate, however, he took a job as a teaching assistant at nearby Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, and found that he loved the variety of academic projects and student interaction.

"I didn't want to be stuck in a research lab for hours and hours," he said. "That's when I looked at teaching."

Occidental prepared him well for a teaching career, Lugue added. His favorite professors include education professors Norm Olson, Ron Solarzano, and Jeff Sapp, and biology professors Beth Braker and Gretchen North, who was his advisor for his master's defense. He especially remembers North's student camping trips to the Anzo Borrego Desert and the Channel Islands as part of her ecology and botany classes. North, who was one of the judges in the regional Science Olympiad event at Occidental, said she's "incredibly proud" of him.

Lugue himself is proud that all of his Science Olympiad students from 2002, the first year Muscatel competed in the challenge, have gone on to college. He and Tulley are organizing a 10-year reunion for the students later this spring.

Those students attend UC Berkeley, UCLA, and other top schools, and about half of them are studying for science and engineering-related degrees. None of his students have attended Occidental yet, he said. But he's working on it.