Lights, Chemistry, Physics!: New teacher Matthew Bourbeau joins the science department

Science teacher Matthew Bourbeau’s UC Irvine roommates snap a goofy picture at Golfland in San Jose during the summer of 2019. From left to right: Jason Yu, Reo Sato, Bourbeau and Robert Dang. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Bourbeau.)

It is 2013. High school senior Matthew Bourbeau stands hunched over on a stage at Atascadero High School, donning an uncomfortable glued-on beard as he plays the wise old rabbi in Atascadero High School’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Little did he know, he would be putting on another performance of sorts seven years later—except this time, on a Zoom call in front of approximately 30 UPA students, 17 times a week.

Bourbeau, who teaches physics and chemistry, is one of four additions to UPA’s teaching staff for the 2020-2021 school year.

The science teacher grew up in Atascadero, Calif., a small town on the coast halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. He was an inquisitive child, prone to a wandering mind and always asking, “Why?”

“For a long time growing up in high school and college, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I would tell them, ‘I want to be a science guy,’ in the vein of Bill Nye,” Bourbeau said. “Finding ways to get science to be more approachable is really important to me.”

The study of colors—his favorite phenomena explained by chemistry—is what drew him to the field in high school.

“The colors we see are really connected to electron structure and how those electrons behave with light,” Bourbeau said. “It seems like a different world of these atoms that are so disconnected from what we see normally. But so much of what we see in the world can be visualized through it and explained through it, and I think it’s just amazing that these very abstract ideas are so fundamental to the way things go on.”

Beyond “new science teacher,” students might know Bourbeau as “Mr. Sato’s roommate”—and that label extends farther back than most realize.

For a long time growing up in high school and college, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I would tell them, ‘I want to be a science guy,’ in the vein of Bill Nye. Finding ways to get science to be more approachable is really important to me.

— Matthew Bourbeau

After graduating from high school in 2013, Bourbeau attended the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where he met current science teacher Reo Sato.

Sato recalled his first impression of Bourbeau, noting he was tall and studious.

“I might have a certain procrastination side that I feel like kind of rubbed off on him, although he says that’s not true,” Sato said. “For the most part, I would say he was pretty hard-working. Whenever we would discuss chemistry questions and whatnot, he was always very smart and on top of things.”

For Bourbeau’s freshmen and sophomore years at UCI, the two lived in the same dorm, but for junior year, they moved into an apartment together with two other roommates, who were chemistry and biology majors. The four bonded over video games such as Super Smash Bros, coming to realize they all enjoyed a subgenre called “roguelikes,” which incorporates role-playing, procedurally generated levels and permanent death of the player character.

After college, the two parted ways, with Sato relocating to San Jose and Bourbeau moving to San Luis Obispo. That was when Bourbeau decided to take a job working at a winery as a chemist.

“For a very long time, I was very unsure about what I wanted to do as a career,” Bourbeau said. “So I took the job at the winery just thinking, ‘It sounds interesting enough. I’ll see how it goes.’ It was just for a season because they had needed to bring in extra people when they had to harvest a lot of grapes. I figured this would be a good place to figure out, ‘Is this something I want to do longer-term?’”

But after running tests on the company’s grapes and wine for five months, Bourbeau decided a career in food chemistry was not for him.

“It was interesting, but also it’s just like, I don’t care about wine,” Bourbeau said. “I realized that just working in a lab, where I’m only working with the materials, was not something I wanted long-term. So then I decided that I was really going to give teaching a try.”

Upon this realization, Bourbeau spent a few months substitute teaching, then earned his teaching credential from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Bourbeau and his parents pose for a photo after Bourbeau received his teaching credential from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2019. From left to right: Melissa, Matthew and Charles Bourbeau. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Bourbeau.)

Soon after, Bourbeau began teaching physics at Gilroy High School. This occurred in 2019 just as Sato entered his second year of teaching at UPA, and the two realized they were working in close enough proximity to get an apartment together, becoming roommates once again.

This close friendship is, in fact, how Bourbeau came to work at UPA. After being informed of an open position by Sato, Bourbeau interviewed for a job a week before the county announced a switch to distance learning on March 13 and was hired for the school year.

Bourbeau teaches physics virtually while Sato teaches AP Chemistry, and the two teach different periods of regular chemistry.

“It’s been a great time being able to work with him,” Bourbeau said. “We’re pretty similar in a lot of ways and a lot of interests beyond just chemistry.”

In fact, five years after first playing video games together, the two still enjoy gaming. Hopping onto a quarantine trend months back, Sato installed the social simulation video game Animal Crossing. Bourbeau, who played earlier versions of the game, protested the decision, warning that Sato would develop an addiction to the app and it would “become his life.”

“That was really true,” Sato said, adding that over the summer the two were completely absorbed in Animal Crossing.

Realizing how addicting it was, Sato quit the video game, and neither he nor Bourbeau have touched it since. For now, they are sticking to games like Super Smash Bros and Legend of Zelda.

Being roommates has other perks, too. Carpooling allows Sato and Bourbeau to drive half as much as they used to, and the teachers love singing “embarrassing karaoke” together on the way to UPA.

“Yesterday we were just singing ‘Les Mis’ at each other,” Sato said. “I love musicals. He loves musicals. We’ve had talks about other musicals like ‘Wicked,’ ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Cats.’”

Bourbeau’s love for musicals and his history with theater and improv continue to shape his teaching style today.

Teaching is also about the connection between yourself and the students—recognizing that if people are struggling with something, how can you help with that struggle?

— Matthew Bourbeau

As a high school student, Bourbeau was heavily involved in the theater community, acting in plays for all four years and occasionally helping with stage construction.

“I really enjoyed the time of not having to think about the things that I’m worrying about and instead just getting to transport myself to an entirely different context,” Bourbeau said. “And being in theater caused a lot of stress because rehearsal times interfered with doing homework and stuff, but it was just being able to have time where I wasn’t really worried about that. Just being in a shared community where we’re all working together for that same goal.”

Out of all the characters Bourbeau played throughout high school, the old, bearded rabbi from “Fiddler on the Roof” stood out as his favorite. The musical tells the story of a small, persecuted Jewish community in a pre-revolutionary Russian village, including a rabbi who plays a minor role, but nonetheless reflects an aspect of theater Bourbeau loves.

“[The rabbi] has maybe five lines throughout the entire show,” Bourbeau said. “But I think that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about theater—trying to make this small role meaningful, and trying to make this small role memorable.”

Upon graduating high school, Bourbeau had little time to participate in any performing arts activities for the first two years of college, but after watching a few performances of UCI’s Improv Revolution group, he decided to join in his junior year. Through it, he learned to be authentic in the moment, discarding carefully thought-out plans that would hinder his spontaneity.

Along with refining Bourbeau’s improvisational skills and flexibility as a teacher, his experience with improv and theater have instilled in him the importance of human connection.

Bourbeau stands for a photo clad in his costume as the rabbi in Atascadero High School’s 2013 production of “”Fiddler on the Roof.” “It was terrible having to glue the beard onto my face, but it was really fun,” Bourbeau said. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Bourbeau.)

“With teaching, you know, you have a clear goal; you have a clear lesson that you want to make sure follows through,” Bourbeau said. “But also, improv really emphasizes connection between the characters. And theater emphasizes connection between actors. And teaching is also about the connection between yourself and the students—recognizing that if people are struggling with something, how can you help with that struggle?”

With distance learning continuing through the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, Bourbeau has been working to create interesting and relevant lesson plans to engage students, and one of his top priorities is inspiring “Eureka!” moments.

“I really enjoy seeing that moment where a student really realizes something or really makes a connection,” Bourbeau said. “Being able to see that really makes me feel like the ideas are kind of getting across; that the stuff that’s in school is not just in school. It’s not like you’re learning it in a vacuum; it really does apply to the world.”