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Yun Lutgen, a math teacher at San Pasqual High School, was recently spotlighted by the Escondido Union High School District for her achievements.
Yun Lutgen, a math teacher at San Pasqual High School, was recently spotlighted by the Escondido Union High School District for her achievements. Courtesy photo
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Math teacher encourages students to learn from mistakes, build robots

ESCONDIDO — San Pasqual High School math teacher Yun Lutgen has always encouraged her students to “fail forward” in everything they do, from taking a test to building robots.

“For me, failing forward is about embracing your mistakes in the classroom,” Lutgen said. “We continuously learn from our mistakes.”

For 18 years, Lutgen has embraced her students’ mistakes at San Pasqual High. She has also applied this concept in her role as advisor for the SuperNURDS FIRST Robotics Team.

“Traditionally many students have a mental block or are afraid of making mistakes or sounding dumb, so they are resistant to make that attempt to solve a problem on their own,” Lutgen said. “Adopting this model that says, ‘hey, we’re only learning when we’re making mistakes,’ means you’re learning how to problem-solve, and that’s a huge component in learning math or really anything.”

Even Lutgen, who wanted to work with young adults, struggled to learn the education system when she was going through school. Lutgen had immigrated to the United States from Korea at the young age of 8 without knowing any word – even “hi” – in English, so the language barrier created a challenge for her as she grew up.

She knew pursuing a career in teaching English grammar might not work out, but math was something she enjoyed. Though math was easier to learn, it still had its challenges with the language barrier, but all of Lutgen’s hard work eventually paid off.

“Yun is an impactful teacher because of the amazing qualities she brings to our campus every day,” said Principal Cory Gregory. “She’s extremely intelligent, has a great sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and she’s forward-thinking. Most importantly — she absolutely loves her students.”

Lutgen was first hired as a teacher at San Pasqual High School and has remained there for nearly two decades now, finding her teaching home among her students and the community.

In 2009, she became an advisor to the school’s SuperNURDS FIRST Robotics Team after a student approached her about wanting to start a robotics group. She started the team with her husband, Phil Lutgen, who was previously a math teacher at Del Dios Middle School in Escondido and is now the principal of North County Trade Tech High School in Vista, where he runs his own student robotics team.

Lutgen helped launch SuperNURDS FIRST Robotics Team at San Pasqual High School in Escondido. Photo via Facebook/
Lutgen helped launch SuperNURDS FIRST Robotics Team at San Pasqual High School in Escondido. Photo via Facebook

Students on the robotics team must design, build and program robots to compete for awards. Through it all, students learn valuable lessons in teamwork, appreciation for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and also, as Lutgen teaches, learning how to problem solve from their own mistakes.

Though robotics teams do compete against each other, the teams in the San Diego County region help each other out whenever possible. Escondido alone has three robotics teams: the one at San Pasqual High School, another at Classical Academy and a third that is homeschool-based.

“We all support each other oddly enough,” Lutgen said. “It’s a competition, but you have to cooperate to win the game.”

In its first year, Lutgen’s team started off with just four people, but that eventually grew to 13 by the end of the school year. The group’s roster jumped to having 55 people after the team went to the world championship in 2012, and now the team’s membership fluctuates between 25-35 students.

“I’m happy to see the students dig in and really find a passion for it,” Lutgen said.

Two years ago, Lutgen stepped back from her role as lead mentor and now works as a volunteer. The robotics team has about 11 volunteers total, several of which are alumni of the robotics team.

Now, leading the team is alumni Taylor Uva, who has a degree in computer science from California State University San Marcos and works for SDG&E as a software developer and data analyst.

Lutgen is grateful for her time spent with the robotics team and the administration who gave her permission to go forward with it all those years ago.

“I just really appreciate the support the administration has given me in basically creating a program,” she said. “They just trusted me in all the things I was doing – and I was asking for kind of crazy things – but in the end, we’re in it for our students.”

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