Still awaiting geniusesThe authors of this article are Korea University students. The article won first place in a journalism contest held by the JoongAng Ilbo in August.
What if Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Issac Newton were born again in Korea?
Einstein, who’s good in math but flunks his other subjects, wouldn’t get into college, and would end up dunking donuts on the streets.
Curie would probably graduate from college, but would continue her studies abroad, since no company in Korea would hire a woman with an engineering or science degree.
Newton would begin studying for a doctorate in science, but would switch to medical school, discouraged by the low level of support for science majors in Korea.
These are jokes that have been passed around for years in Korea. Sadly, they reflect harsh reality for Koreans who graduated from special schools that were meant to incubate brilliant young minds to become future scientists.
Gyeonggi Science High School, found in 1983, was the first of its kind; since then, 17 other science schools have been established across Korea. The science schools gained a high profile in the early ’90s because of overwhelming public interest in schools that specialized in particular subjects, such as foreign langauges.
Back then, it was a privilege to be accepted to one of these schools, where almost all the brightest students went. For that reason, parents across the country were trying to enroll their children in these special schools.
Those science school students who enrolled in the early ’90s are now in their late 20s and early 30s. And most of them are not pursuing careers in science.
In August, Korea University students conducted a survey of 111 science school graduates between the age of 26 and 30. Only 26 percent said they were leading lives that fulfilled the purpose of science high schools ― as researchers at science institutions, or students working on their masters or doctoral degrees in science.
Thirty-five percent said they no longer work in the field of science. Most of those respondents said they were simply office workers; others had changed their career goals and gone to medical school or business school.
The remainder of those surveyed were unsure whether they would ever work in science.
All of those polled asked for anonymity, and therefore only their surnames will be used here.
Choi, 27, graduated from a science high school and earned an engineering degree from Seoul National University, but currently he is a field manager at a steel company in Incheon.
“I had to jump into the production field so I could get an exemption from military service,” Choi said.
Kim, 27, an intern at Kyungpook National University Hospital, enrolled in a science high school in 1993.
In his second year of high school, Kim voluntarily dropped out. “Science high school was not a school for young science geniuses,” Kim recalled.
Students at science schools, it seems, were not free from college entrance exam pressures or academic cliques.
When Seoul Science High School in 1994 set a record by getting all 132 of its graduates into prestigious Seoul National University, other science schools intensified their college entrance exam preparation programs, so that a large number of their own students would also get into SNU.
“Gifted science students couldn’t get away from the Korean social structure that puts great emphasis on what college you graduated from,” said Eom, 28.
Mr. Eom, who is now working at an environmental consulting company, said even science school students had to focus their studies on the college entrance exam, rather on science subjects, to be accepted by a prestigious college.
A 27-year-old science school graduate, Jung, said that “science school, where all of the students lived in a dormitory, degraded into a college entrance exam preparation boarding house.”
Problems emerged even after the students moved on to college. Lee, 27, who is planning to study at Stanford University, said that “talented students from science schools turned into your average college students, even at Seoul National University.”
Lee said that since the courses in the first two years of college were easy for science school graduates, many of them were tempted by drinking, pool and video games. “They end up neglecting their studies,” said Lee.
Forty-one percent of the graduates surveyed said there was a lack of support from the government for cultivating scientists.
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is known as a leading educational institution that is connected with science high schools. But KAIST only accepts 600 students each year, while science schools graduate 1,100 students annually. This means most science students have to go to general universities.
And some believe that science school students are at a disadvantage when competing to get into college.
That’s because some students who would excel at regular high schools might get mediocre grades at the highly competitive science schools. A program that gave extra weight to college applicants from science schools was stripped away, amid much controversy, in 1997.
The Korea University study found that the graduates who were working toward their doctoral or masters degrees had an annual income of 5 to 10 million won ($4,350 to $8,700). Shin, 26, who is now studying at Pohang University of Science and Technology, said that “teaching part-time to make a living is hard, but future prospects are even more dubious. Who would choose to be a scientist?”
It isn’t easy to determine one’s career aptitude in the third year of middle school. But it could be said that many science school graduates made the wrong decision when they were just that young.
Forty percent of science school graduates said they enrolled in science school in order to get into a good college, which was the general impression of science schools in the ‘90s, or just because they wanted to compete with the best.
The survey suggests that the students didn’t think about whether they wanted to pursue the study of science.
“Everyone excelling in middle school wanted to go to science schools,” said Kim, who applied to science school after middle school but failed. Kim is now majoring in business management at Korea University.
“Looking back, I think I was rather lucky that I failed at the time,” said Kim. “It wasn’t right for me.”
Park, a Seoul National University humanities student, changed his major from industrial engineering.
Park said he had more interest in performance art than in engineering classes, which he found boring.
“I wanted to do something that was appropriate for me. So I changed my major even though I was a little late,” Park said.
Yoo, 27, a researcher at a chemistry research institute and a science school graduate, said middle school applicants to science school should be counseled on whether it is right for them.
Mr. Yoo added that the country should carefully screen for likely future scientists, and not simply accept anyone with a good score.
Among the 18 students who said they enrolled in science school only to get into a prestigious college, only one was working in the field of science.
This would seem to support the assertion that science school students should be admitted only after thorough investigation into whether they have an aptitude for science, and whether it’s the right subject for them.
The government implemented a new system for gifted science students in 2001. By this system, Busan Science High School was able to establish a special “no test” agreement with KAIST, making it possible for students to attend the science college just by virtue of having graduated from Busan’s program.
Additionally 144 middle school students from all over the country will be selected as “pre-scientists” after undergoing a three-phase screening process.
The ministry of education, however, made it clear that it is not planning to appoint more schools for the gifted until it sees the results from Busan.
Choi, 28, who is working on his doctorate at Seoul National University, said, “Other science high schools should also look for solutions so they can focus on truly cultivating young science geniuses.”
Mr. Choi added, “One way is to create an environment where acquiring an education from science school is reflected in the college entrance exam, or some of the classes at the science school are accepted as credits in college.”
by Ham young-chul, Lee Dong-park, Park So-hun