Test scores falling
Japanese 15-year-olds still perform well on international science and math tests, but not as well as they used to. At one time, they ranked first or second in the world, but by 2009, they had slipped to fifth place in science and ninth in math.
Watanabe said the quality of his engineering students has steadily declined over the last 20 years. "The students nowadays don't want to think [for themselves]," he said.
Some in Japan are now trying to get young people reengaged in science. One effort is a new school, opened in 2009, called Yokohama Science Frontier High School.
The school has top-notch faculty, access to real-world scientists, and lab facilities rivaling some universities. Up on the roof there is an astronomical observatory at one end and a small honeybee colony at the other.
"Science is fun," said sophomore Ryo Suzumoto, standing beside the apiary. "If students understood how wonderful science is, they'd study it, no matter how demanding it is."
Spirit to save the world
That is the point of Yokohama Science Frontier High School — to cultivate scientific ability and passion. The school seeks to graduate students with "the spirit and strength to save the world."
Some scientists hope the high school will serve as a model for districts throughout Japan, but it is not clear whether other communities can afford such a high-tech and high cost school.
Sophomore Lisa Tanaka said she loves being at the high school, but she has one complaint — only 25 percent of the students are female. "[The] science world needs more girls," she said.
Junior Taketoshi Watanabe said he's glad to be at a school that treats science seriously. He said that wasn't the case at his elementary school, where he had to teach himself science by reading books and surfing the Web.
Yokohama Science Frontier High School is reaching out to today's elementary students to make sure they get engaged in science too. Several times a year, young children visit the high school to tour the laboratories and classrooms and to meet the students.
"Our students, they look really cool," said high school principal Takeshi Miyazaki. "So little children get motivated for studying science."