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Troy High's Mastery Isn't Science Fiction

Fullerton school wins fifth national science title in eight years. Team credits its coaches' tireless and creative help.

May 15, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

Many high schools find their forte: a first-rate football team, a captivating concert band, a dominant debate team.

For Troy High School, it's the National Science Olympiad, a fiercely competitive event the Fullerton team has dominated in recent years. At Ohio State University on Saturday, the school grabbed its fifth national title in the last eight years, beating out 53 other science powerhouses.

"Every school has to do a little bit to specialize," said Dan Jundanian, one of the team's two coaches. "Some are strong in the decathlon, some in speech and debate. The Olympiad has been one of our strong points."

Fifteen Troy students competed in tests of science and engineering skills. Students were paired up and tested in a variety of hourlong events. Scores were based on their ranking in each event, with the lowest scores best. High school and middle school students compete in separate divisions.

The events included Designer Genes, in which students solved genetics problems, and Sound of Music, in which they built and played musical instruments.

The breadth of knowledge tested by the Olympiad requires well-rounded competitors, the coaches said. "They're just good, top-notch students who like to learn," said Jundanian, who with science teacher Kurt Wahl has been guiding the team since the school's first Olympiad in 1994. "I don't know how they find the time in a 24-hour day to do the things they do. It's just amazing."

While the students are proud of their accomplishments, they credit their success to Jundanian and Wahl.

"Everyone on the team is self-motivated," said Nancy Chen, 17, a senior who has competed all four years in high school and two in middle school. "We wouldn't be there without our coaches."

Troy's coaches start planning for the next Olympiad before the suitcases are unpacked from the last trip. They begin lining up textbooks, planning field trips and finding summer classes that could give their students a jump on the competition. They make themselves available nights and weekends, and go out of their way to get students the study materials and experience they need to be successful at the nationals.

To prepare for an event called Feathered Frenzy, coaches drove Chen and her teammates to a museum in San Bernardino where they could study stuffed birds to learn to identify them rather than rely solely on photos.

"There are not many teachers who will wake up early on a Saturday morning and drive to San Bernardino for you," Chen said.

The coaches "take care of us, making sure everything is OK," said Christopher Wen, 18, who along with Peter Pawlowski served as team captain. "If something happens and we need some tape or batteries ... they're always ready to run out to the store."

The commitment and drive of the coach are often vital to the success of a competing team, Olympiad officials said.

"The coach is the master of the chessboard," said Sharon Putz, executive administrator for the National Science Olympiad, which is based in Rochester, Mich., and held its 19th annual competition this year. "They help the students find the niche where they belong ... and they are the head of their Science Olympiad family. It's not just a latent responsibility."

Jundanian said the secret to Troy's success lies in part with giving students the freedom to try various events and figure out their strengths, whether in chemistry, biology, engineering or any of the other science categories in the competition.

Seven team members are seniors who will go to Stanford, Harvard and UC Berkeley to study such subjects as medicine and computer science. That means Jundanian and Wahl will have to rebuild the team for next year. However, both said the experienced team members can mentor the newcomers. "As the new members come on, the old ones take them under their wing," he said. "There's a lot of camaraderie."

Departing seniors say they will miss the Olympiad and the bond among team members. "This year is a little more bittersweet," Chen said. "I've been doing this for more than a third of my life, and this is my last [competition]. It's sad that it's all over."

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