Doctoral student coaches team to Olympiad championship

May 2011

A team of Oxford Middle School students is on its way to a national science competition, thanks, in part, to some valuable coaching from a University of Mississippi engineering student.

Michael Hougendobler will accompany the group to the 2011 National Science Olympiad Tournament to be held May 20-21 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The team, which won six medals at the state competition in March at the University of Southern Mississippi, is one of two groups representing the state in the contest.

"We will travel to Madison earlier in the week to take advantage of the workshops, tours and exhibits being offered in conjunction with the competition," said Hougendobler, a native of Franklin, Tenn., who is completing his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering at Ole Miss. "I believe 60 middle schools and 60 high schools compete at the national level."

A NASA/MSSGC (Mississippi Space Grant Consortium) Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, Hougendobler began coaching the students last September after meeting with two OMS teachers who coached the previous year's team.

"Mrs. (Patricia) Kincade and Mrs. (Susan) Drummond contacted the Mississippi Center for Math and Science Education to see if anyone would be interested in coaching," Hougendobler said.

In previous years, Kincade worked closely with John O'Haver, CMSE director. Alice Steimle, associate director, put Kincade in touch with Hougendobler.

"One component of the fellowship is outreach to local K-12 math and science teachers," Hougendobler said. "The CMSE contacted me to see if I was interested. I met with them and started working with their students shortly after."

Hougendobler has been a wonderful coach and a positive influence upon her students, Kincade said.

"The fact that he is a grad student, not one of their teachers, really upped his 'cool' factor, and all of the students seemed to enjoy interacting with him," Kincade said. "We are lucky to have found Michael."

The students met twice per week after school until Christmas break. Afterward, they began meeting three times per week.

"Most of the students on the team competed in last year's competition, so they already had a good idea about how to prepare," Hougendobler said. "I made sure they were staying on task, following the rules, and I helped them understand some of the concepts they were struggling with."

His assistance proved to be invaluable, Drummond said.

"This year's science Olympiad team is weighted heavily on the male side, with 10 boys and six girls, so having a male coach was awesome for the boys," she said. "Having Michael coach the team helped us by bringing in additional subject matter expertise and allowed us to focus on ancillary details that go along with preparing for both the state and national competitions."

Preparation for the event varied. "Certain events required building things in advance, such as a trebuchet or wooden tower," Hougendobler said. "Other events required students to learn about specific scientific topics such as anatomy, ecology, electricity and the solar system."

The Oxford team, which had no financial sponsors to the state competition, is seeking sponsorships for its trip to the national event.

"The state trip was paid for by the school and parents," he said. "Engineers from the Tennessee Valley Authority helped students prepare for some of the events."

Hougendobler holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in materials science and engineering. He is the son of John and Cindy Hougendobler of Memphis, Tenn.

For information about how to become a sponsor for the Oxford Middle School Science Olympiad Team, contact either Patricia Kincade at pkincade@oxford.k12.ms.us or Susan Drummond at sjdrummond@oxford.k12.ms.us. For more information about the UM School of Engineering, visit engineering.olemiss.edu. For details about the National Science Olympiad, visit nso.wisc.edu.