Scientist Awarded for Teaching Excellence at Central Falls High School

RIC alumnus David Upegui in his science classroom.

RIC alumnus David Upegui in his science classroom.


RIC alumnus David Upegui left the field of science research to teach biology at Central Falls High School, the same school he once attended as a boy in a city where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line and the graduation rate was less than 50 percent.

Recently he was coaching his class in preparation for the Advanced Placement Exams, when Deputy Superintendent Victor Capellan phoned him, asking him to bring his class to the auditorium. Upegui responded, “I can’t. I have 14 days to teach this content. My kids need this content delivered.” Upegui hung up.

Not long after, the phone rang again. This time the deputy superintendent was insistent. Upegui said to his students, “We have to go to the auditorium. We’ll sit in the back, stay 10 minutes and then leave.”

Most of the school had gathered. Capellan was there, along with Superintendent Frances Gallo and R.I. Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. At the podium, a representative from Amgen, an international biotechnology company, was explaining the importance of science education. The rep said the company makes a point of rewarding K-12 teachers who’ve made a significant impact on the next generation of students. She said, “I’d like to present the 2013 Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence to Mr. Upegui.”

The auditorium erupted: “Upegui! Upegui!” “It was the most amazing feeling,” Upegui said.

Amgen had awarded him an unrestricted cash payment of $5,000 and a restricted grant of $5,000 for the enhancement of the school’s science program. Upegui intends to use the grant to buy a high-end stereoscopic microscope for his classroom, two computers, a pair of binoculars for field studies and ready-made experiments for his advanced placement biology class.

Upegui’s science teaching excellence was apparent the first year he taught at Central Falls High School. That year, two of his students won anatomy and physiology gold medals at the state science Olympiad held at Rhode Island College. Last year one of his students made it to the premedical program at Brown, another made it into MIT – the first in the history of the school. Several students this year have been accepted into RIC’s honors program.

Upegui, who worked in laboratory science research for over nine years, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1997 and a master’s degree in psych-biology in 2003 from Rhode Island College. In 2006 he earned a secondary science teaching certificate at Rhode Island College, and in 2010 he was hired by the Central Falls school district. 

He credits his teaching abilities and the man he is today to his RIC professors: professors of biology Lloyd Matsumoto and Edythe Anthony, professor of psychology Duncan White and English professor Maureen Reddy, along with many others. “They were much more than teachers,” he said. “They were pivotal in my life, in making me who I am. When I teach, they are teaching through me. I catch myself saying something that Dr. Matsumoto once said. I sound like my teachers.”

And every year Upegui invites his RIC mentor, Matsumoto, to come and give a lecture to his class. White visited every other week this semester, teaching his students the psychological techniques of training rats to play basketball.

Upegui is one of 13 science teachers in the country selected by an independent panel of judges for the Amgen Award. All recipients are selected for their outstanding ability to inspire their students and produce results in science education.