Independent Inquiry: Isaac Islas-Cox Investigates Architecture

Isaac Islas-Cox, a high school junior, is well into his Independent Inquiry studies. In March we introduced the Independent Inquiry program through Kari Wadden’s presentation on feminism and design.

Issac has offered the following insights into his specific project and also the program as a whole:

I am currently taking part in an Independent Inquiry, in which I get to shape my own educational path; I have been exploring architecture and design by examining a single architectural element and investigating how esthetics, culture and history influence its final shape. One of the goals I incorporated with the help of my supervisors is to “independently enter situations that are unfamiliar or challenging in order to enhance your growth.” To address this goal, I interviewed the founding trio of architects from the firm DesignLINK, Carl Studnicka, Neil Warren and Kawanabe Akihiro. Their wonderful answers and gracious attention to this interview was much more than I expected, and expanded my understanding of the field of architecture.

History With ASIJ

DesignLINK assisted ASIJ to create a master plan for renovating the entire school (a total of 13 plans) in 1997. They have had a hand in the Roppongi campus, the Elementary School doughnut and Multipurpose Room, the High School renovation for earthquake safety, the gym, cafeteria building and the Ricketson Theater. They have also completed projects with several other international schools and airlines.

Expectations of an Architect

I could tell that these three professionals had developed a comfortable collaborative team when I asked them, “How would you describe your job as an architect?” and they jokingly commented, “Oh, he asked the question.” After deciding who would answer first, Mr. Studnicka commented that in reality, working as an architect is 90% paperwork and 10% designing. Mr. Studnicka added that dealing with clients is a major part of the job because, as an architect, you are responding to and accommodating the clients needs and wishes. The 90% paperwork then consists of meetings with clients to receive their input and creating the program (a document that outlines the plan and the designs for the construction). Many times, he said, designing is the exception, while planning and doing paperwork takes over as the majority.

I asked them if their current work was different from what they expected it to be when they were studying architecture. I was surprised with Mr. Studnicka’s abrupt response—“I was dismayed.” He added that dealing with the client’s money takes patience and places the client as the “final decider.” “The architect becomes the solution provider, and really you only have about 5% as your decision for designs and so on.” Mr. Warren contended that it was actually about 10% and said that some projects, like housing projects, offer more design freedom and are a little bit more fun as a result. Up until that point, I had not considered the massive amounts of paperwork that must go with the meticulous designs that the architects construct. I began to realize several other dimensions to architecture: the paperwork, the public relations with the clients, the design process and the construction process.

Architecture in Practice

As architects, these professionals are always learning. They have to stay up to date with current projects, and they have to conduct research for each project. For example, to construct the Ricketson Theater, Mr. Studnicka traveled to London to inspect theaters in action with performances. Mr. Warren commented that in retrospect, the RT was a fun project. Of course this amount of research results in lots of paperwork, ranging from the multiple drawing plans for each project, to the programs of how organize the construction process. Mr. Studnicka noted that because the Japanese working day goes until late, working as an architect in Japan is a little bit different than in the States. He feels guilty if he leaves before everyone finishes working; “8 pm is an early night off.”

Architects often use a 3D model for the plan made of hard paper, foam and other materials. However, now that there are many computer programs that can generate 3D models. I wondered why architects still use physical 3D models. Mr. Studnicka responded that clients relate much more easily to physical 3D models. Everyone knows how to touch, while not everyone knows how to navigate a 3D design program, so presenting to clients is much more easy and successful with physical models. Also, for computer generated 3D models to be convincing, they must go through several levels of rendering, which takes time that he would prefer saving by making physical models.


A co-op house that Mr. Kawanabe designed, in which the garden works as a cohesive device for the surrounding community

For the next step in my Independent Inquiry, I am going to take an element of architecture (in my case, the “door”), research its cultural characteristics throughout history, and extrapolate on the the essence of its design.  This will help me to answer the question, “what is good architecture and design?”  The research will assist me in creating a new concept for a door or entry into the High School lobby.

In addressing my project, I asked the three professionals what is their concept of a door? The three split up in their perspective, as Mr. Kawanabe thinks of a door as something that brings people in, while Mr. Studnicka thinks of a door as a way to keep people out. Mr. Warren considered doors as acting both as a way to bring people in, and a way to keep people out. They all agreed, however, that the environment that the architecture creates should be the tool that brings people in or keeps people out. As a firm with experience in designing lobbies for airline companies, Mr. Warren commented that in a way the lobby becomes the door in some places.

Design and the Process of Projects

What I learned from Mr. Warren is that good design must function, must complete all the requirements and must look good. Mr. Studnicka added that it should be “infused with some spirit too, some kind of character,” and Mr. Kawanabe showed me how he chooses to include nature.  He designed a housing compound “like a little village, so that there is security.” He clarified that his idea of security didn’t include guards or special locks, but security in the way that the architecture permits all the residents to know each other, and security that creates a sense of warmth so, although there are no fences, one can sense a difference when entering the compound.


Part of the housing compound Mr. Kawanabe designed

Walking out of their office after the interview, I was excited; I was beginning to understand more about the art of design. (Isaac Islas-Cox, Grade 11)

Independent Inquiry: Senior Kari Wadden Explores Feminism and Design

ASIJ Senior, Kari Wadden, spoke to interested high school students about her explorations into the intersections of feminism and design on February 10th.

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Kari began by introducing her familial and cultural motivations to explore feminism as well as her academic interest in design. The two, naturally, came together into a topic rich with questions. These questions led Kari to not only examine but also design tools to improve the lives of women, liberate them from traditional roles and raise the standard of living.

bikeThe issues that Kari addressed included methods of water transportation in countries where simply retrieving water for cooking or bathing is a difficult task. She considered designs that would make resources more accessible to women who may have to walk miles to retrieve something such as clean water.

Design and feminism, as Kari presented, does not stop at tools. Urban planning is another area of concern. Urban design can not only enhance and protect the lives of women, but also facilitate harm.

Kari’s research and presentation is part of ASIJ’s Independent Inquiry program which is currently available to high school juniors and seniors.

Independent Inquiry encourages passionate students to propose questions in order to explore an interest that ASIJ may not currently cover within a standard course. Research and exploration of topics such as molecular gastronomy, architecture, 3D modeling and graffiti, intrinsic motivation and learning,  app development and the intersections of feminism and design take students beyond a Google search and include creating their own learning network beyond the resources available on campus.

In the second half of the semester the question that juniors and seniors who take Independent Inquiry are asked to answer is “now what?” How can what they learned be applied outside of their own research and design ideas? What are the practical methods to apply these ideas?

Through Independent Inquiry students are able to develop their own learning pathways and to personalize their learning. While the content they discover and digest is certainly meaningful, what is more valuable is what they learn about themselves as independent learners and what it means to persist and pursue a passion.

Creating Hexagonal Polymers—10th grader’s science internship at SIT

IMG_3795I was extremely excited to find out that I was accepted along with other students from international schools in Tokyo and from abroad for a science internship at the Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT). The internship promised the chance to study topics ranging from superconductivity and materials science to robotics engineering. SIT is a Japanese University, established in 1927, with campuses in Shibaura, Omiya and Toyosu. It is specialized in, and most known, for its engineering programs.

Since it was my first internship, my first day was nervewracking yet exciting. Each of us, were required to give a 10-minute presentation about ourselves. I presented on my family background, hobbies, my home country of India and the preliminary research I had done on biomaterials and nanotechnology before the internship. After our presentations, we were welcomed to the program by the director of the internship, Professor Miryala and the professors of each department.

My two-week journey into the realm of science had begun in the Department of Material Science and Engineering!

On my first day in the lab, Prof. Matsumura and his college students showed me around the lab and explained my assigned research topic, the science of honeycomb structures. Honeycomb structures are hexagonal structures known for their high strength-to-weight ratio, and have applications in everything from airplanes all the way down to bathroom floors.

My mentor, a fourth year college student, whom we all lovingly called “Kagawa,” (after a famous soccer player in Japan that he looked like) helped me make my first polymer film with a honeycomb structure. We made this under standard conditions, which meant at a temperature of 25°C, a solution concentration consisting of 10 molecules of PLA for every molecule of DOPE (the chemicals we used to make our honeycomb structure) at a relative humidity of 85-90%.

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Apparatus set up to make honeycomb structures

My goal at the end of the project was to discover a way to make the pore size of the honeycomb structures large enough (about 5 micrometers) so that it could be applied to a new application, which was to create synthetic multicellular structures that could mimic human tissues for life sciences. Through these artificial tissues, we can use honeycomb structures to act as placeholders so the cells in the tissues are not constantly moving, as cells do. To be able to hold these cells, our honeycomb structure needs to be at least 5 micrometers. By doing these steps, we will be able to observe biological reactions that happen in our cell and know the exact location of what’s happening between cells, and the conditions that these reactions occur in. Through this, we can get a deeper understanding of the biological processes that happen in our cell, and also apply it to other applications that require the understanding of these reactions.

In order to do this, I hypothesized that tweaking the standard conditions of temperature, concentration, and relative humidity when making the honeycomb structures would affect its pore size. In order to see how temperature would affect the pore size of the honeycomb structure, I made multiple honeycomb structures at varying temperatures and concentration levels to find a linear relationship between temperatures and pore size, and an inverse relationship between pore size and concentration levels. Unfortunately, I did not have time to explore the relationships of other variables, such as relative humidity.

Dissolving chemicals used to make honeycomb structures

Dissolving chemicals used to make honeycomb structures

Despite the successes I had in conducting these experiments, there were times when I encountered some obstacles, such as the pore sizes for a particular honeycomb structure all coming out to be different. However, despite these difficulties, I managed to problem-solve my way through it by adjusting the conditions, which made my desired end result much more satisfying. For those who would like to know more about my experiment, you can check it out on my blog or download the presentation I gave at the end of my internship.

Aside from all the interesting experiments I conducted in the laboratory, I had plenty of enjoyment outside—from playing table tennis in the arena to getting to know the lives of college students while having lunch with them.

A final presentation after two weeks brought an end to our internship; we had officially become “internship graduates!”

Overall, this internship gave me exposure to life at college and also gave me some knowledge about Japanese Universities and their college programs. Aside from this, this internship also gave me some insight on what my interests are and what I might want to pursue in the future by giving me exposure to advanced concepts and techniques that I otherwise wouldn’t encounter at school. Lastly, it helped me in my problem-solving skills by allowing me to face my own challenges and hurdles, shaping me into a more confident and independent problem-solver. Dev Gulati (10th Grade)

Nana Yoshimura reflects on her internship at SIT

High school sophomore Nana Yoshimura tells us about her summer internship at Shibaura Institute of Technology.

Instead of spending my summer at the beach this year, I decided to challenge myself by pursuing my interests in the sciences and stepping out of my comfort zone. I sent an application to a science internship program held by a famous science university in Japan, Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT). I was accepted along with several other ASIJ students who were eager to spend two precious weeks of summer doing research.


ASIJ sophomore Nana Yoshimura during her internship at SIT

On the very first day, we each gave a ten minute presentation introducing ourselves and the significance of this internship. In my presentation, I mentioned four key words to describe the importance of this internship to me: interacting with others, pursuing my true passions, learning from experts and broadening my knowledge. The experience I had during the internship gave me all of this and more.

I had the privilege of working in a superconductivity laboratory with two professors, Mr. Miryala and the president of SIT, Mr. Murakami, who contributed to the initial innovations of superconductivity. During those two weeks, we were able to experience the process of creating a superconductor, observe its chemical properties and measure its magnetic field and strength.

In our free time, the college students kept us entertained—from showing us a ten thousand dollar superconductor, to liquefying carbon dioxide and playing with liquid nitrogen. They showed us the most intriguing chemistry experiments and explained all the underlying concepts. They constantly reminded us of the significance of understanding the reasoning behind what is occurring in the experiment.

On the last day, we made a final presentation on what we had learnt over the past two weeks. It was a monumental day where everybody gave an extremely complex and specific presentation that summed up the results of our research. The professors wrapped it up by distributing awards of completion, and gave us a heartwarming speech about our future potential and how science still leaves us a space to discover.


This internship gave me momentous inspiration to continue pursuing my passion for scientific research. The experience I had at SIT surpassed all of my expectations, and continuously provided me with challenges that propelled me forward. It also enabled me to better understand the thought process behind scientific experiments, gave me insight into future career options, and acted as a catalyst and a motivation factor for me to pursue my future goals in the scientific fields. (Nana Yoshimura, grade 10 student)


Expanding learning horizons with GOA

ASIJ high school students can dig deeper, and pursue niche interests in their academic studies by taking an online course through Global Online Academy (GOA). ASIJ joined GOA in 2012 to expand learner horizons and provide different kinds of learning experiences that make use of technology and global connections.

There are now more than fifty member schools in the GOA global consortium which means ASIJ students have the opportunity to learn with others from different timezones and cultures.

We asked some of the nine students who are taking GOA courses this semester to share about their experience so far, and why they chose to take a GOA course.

Milla Shin (Grade 11)

Math was always one of my favourite subjects at school. I took Calculus last year, and I loved my class. I wanted to continue taking math, but multivariable calculus was not offered at our school. By taking GOA, I am not only able to continue my math career and apply last year’s content to different dimensions, but I am also able to have the experience of an online classroom.goa1

I have been excited about meeting and working with other people from around the world. Typically, I am used to the people in my class, and I see them outside of class almost every day. Skyping and messaging people I’ve never met in person to discuss calculus has been very interesting and exiting. I am also very surprised about how efficient and effective the class has been so far. At first, I was a bit skeptical about how the class was going to work, and how I would learn without going to class and listening to lectures. Despite several communication and technical problems we had, my teacher has been able to send us videos to watch each week, and I have been able to learn the content that I would have otherwise learned in a normal class.

By taking the GOA course, I have learned to become more independent and responsible. My teacher gives me a certain load of coursework each week, so I have to manage my time to finish the assignments. Also, since I don’t have to go to a classroom and my teacher doesn’t remind me to hand in my assignments, I have to be more responsible and make sure that I complete my work before the deadlines. In addition, if I am confused about a certain concept, my teacher will most likely not realize until I take a quiz or test. Thus, I have to be proactive in asking my own questions.

Kate Latimore (Grade 12)

Art has always been an interest of mine, and I have really enjoyed the various art classes available at ASIJ. While I had taken many classes that involve using paints and ceramics, I hadn’t taken any courses that involved digital art, which I think is a large part of the world around us in today’s day and age. GOA has introduced me to this type of media which is not a specific class available at ASIJ.goa3

Throughout the course so far I have come to realize that design is incorporated in everything around us and that it actually influences the way we act and think. I’ve also found that graphic design is a very effective way to communicate ideas and concepts without using words.

What I’ve learned is how to pace myself when working throughout the week so that I don’t end up having to do all the work on the weekend. Because there is no set class time, I have had to make time on my own to finish tasks. I think this will be important in the future when it will be up to me to designate time for studying.

Ella Noll (Grade 12)

I have always been intrigued by the ability to speak multiple foreign languages. I started with Japanese, made my way to Chinese and now find myself at Arabic. Though I don’t really have a personal connection with the Middle East, the Arab world seems to be such a hot topic of debate and interest in the 21st century that I can only imagine how far the benefits of being able to speak Arabic will go. When I looked through the list of classes GOA offers, nothing jumped out at me as much as Arabic did and I feel so lucky to be able to spend my senior year learning something I’m truly interested in.

goa2A few weeks ago I was notified by my GOA teacher that each student in her Arabic class would participate in a club called the Shu Fi Ma Fi club. Though I was at first a little skeptical and weary about how much extra work it would mean, I now know what a great opportunity it is. The Shu Fi Ma Fi club has paired me with a high school student in Jordan who, throughout the course of the year, will help teach me cultural aspects of Arabic. Last Saturday, I Skyped with my partner for the first time, and we ended up spending two full hours just talking. I learned so much about her culture and was genuinely intrigued by everything she had to say. Learning a language online might seem like it misses out on so many social and cultural lessons, but with technology and resources these days I can participate in things like the Shu Fi Ma Fi club and still get all the benefits of learning a language.

Obviously the trickiest thing with an online course is time management. Especially when learning a language, I have to be careful to learn a little at a time rather than all at once so as to make sure the content sticks. As I struggle with time management, I have found that there are days where I simply want to complete the assignment, and there are days where I don’t want to stop. Those are by far the best days. It’s been a while since I have felt so passionately interested in something, and I’m glad that GOA has allowed me to experience that.


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(Above) Grade 12 student Reisa Matsuda is something of an expert on GOA courses because she has been able to pursue a personal interest in the field of health through a variety of courses offered. We interviewed her about how learning online has expanded her learning horizons, and how she is using what she has learned in her work as a student trainer.

Learn More:
Global Online Academy at ASIJ
Global Online Academy Website