Independent Science Learning

During the summer of 1998, physics and computer science teacher Mike Ugawa developed the curriculum for a Science Research program, expanding on the work begun by Tom Murphy ’76, the former science department chairman. Ugawa received the Spohn Excellence in Teaching Award and used the award funds to purchase state-of-the art apparatus used to perform experiments in quantum theory and relativity. These experiments formed the core of the curriculum, representing a unique opportunity for high school students to perform experiments in areas of science normally not accessible until college.

“The traditional physics curriculum is based upon the work of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and others representing ideas developed in the 16th through 19th Centuries,” said Ugawa. “The scientific revolution of the 20th Century — work that was done by Plank, Bohr, Schrödinger, Einstein and others — is largely neglected in traditional high school physics programs though it forms the basis for modern technology such as solid state electronics and computers. The Science Research program represents a step toward integrating these exciting topics into our science curriculum.”

Ugawa designed the course to help students develop skills necessary for research in any discipline. The students review research literature, develop a protocol, collect and analyze data and present their findings by writing a journal-style article and by giving an oral presentation in the semi-annual Science Research Seminar. “All of these skills are useful in any field of academic or industrial research that the student may pursue in the future,” Ugawa added.

SI has offered the Science Research program every semester since its inception; the program has expanded the curriculum beyond the sciences to include projects from various fields of engineering. The Science Research program has distinguished SI as one of the few schools in the nation where students have the opportunity to demonstrate research experience at the high school level.

For his Science Research work, as well as his general leadership in the local physics education community, Ugawa was able to make SI a center for the advancement of physics education in the Bay Area beginning in the summer of 2000 when he was named Physics Teaching Resource Agent for the American Association of Physics Teachers. As one of only 18 teachers selected for the honor from across the nation that year, Ugawa is now among the top 200 physics teachers in the U.S. and works to improve the quality of physics education by offering training and support to teachers in urban centers throughout the country. The U.S. Congress praised this program as one of the few educational reform projects producing substantial results.

“Students in inner-city schools are typically among the most disadvantaged in the nation,” noted Ugawa. “This is an opportunity to make a significant contribution toward the improvement of the quality of education received by these students and to increase their chances of success.” From 2000 through 2004, Ugawa continued to offer workshops on weekends at SI for teachers from urban schools in the Bay Area. During this time, he was one of the region’s leading science educators, serving as the President of the Northern California/Nevada Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.