Courses meld science with creative artistry

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Courses meld science with creative artistry

DAEJEON ― A novelist in a science school is indeed a novel idea, but what is he doing there? That’s a question Kim Tak-hwan, the author of “I, Hwang Jin-i,” which has been adapted as an SBS drama and is now a hit series, has heard often since he took up the post of digital storytelling professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist.
“Well, obviously, I am teaching the students to write,” he answers simply.
But that simple writing class has so far shown accomplishments beyond expectation since it launched as a new graduate course at Korea’s top science academy less than a year ago. The Graduate School of Culture Technology was designed for science majors who wanted to apply their engineering skills in cultural fields.
Mr. Kim and his class have received offers from three of the country’s major film production companies to write science -fiction scenarios for them to film. In addition, Mr. Kim’s latest work, the novel “Lee Tsin” will be adapted as a film and the producers are looking for an American partner to market the project abroad.
Mr. Kim said he expects his students will be a huge help to him in finishing the scenario for that film.
“They are smart kids. They are learning fast,” he said.
A few months ago, he never expected he would soon be saying that. He said he was initially as lost as the first group of science majors who enrolled in his class.
“I did not know that [the students] would agonize over the meaning of ‘refer to the materials,’ which is what I told the class to do for the next session,” he said. “They seemed to think that solving a quantum mechanics problem would be easier.”
“They would stare blankly at each other and ask me back, ‘Does that mean we should read the 1,000-page novel in two days, or not?’”
Choi Yeo-jeong, a chemistry engineering graduate of Kaist, was a good example of that confusion as she sighed while holding a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ essays. The assignment that week was to read the Argentine writer’s fictional essays and “take the time to speculate” about his work.
Despite seeming a typical assignment for literature and creative writing classes, such homework left Ms. Choi scrunching her face into a frown as she wondered out loud, “How are you supposed to speculate about a literary figure anyway?”
Their new professor’s teaching methods, or even the language he used, was unfamiliar to most of the science graduates and they needed time to adapt from their habits of studying, calculating and labeling numeral tables to learn how to think laterally about literature and humanities.
Ms. Choi hopes to become an animation producer, an area where she thinks she could use her engineering knowledge in imaginative literature.
“As for me, I am now learning the basics of what makes an epic and a novel,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
Mr. Kim said that despite the “slight difficulties in communication,” students with different majors were showing “amazing synergy effects.”
“They are very enthusiastic and fast in learning the literary subjects,” he said. “I am really looking forward to what these students can come up with in a couple of years when they complete well-knit scenarios based on a good scientific background.”
Assisting the best-selling author is Noh Jun-yong, a former computer graphic scientist from Rhythm & Hues Studios in LA, where he worked in recent years developing computer graphics software for more than 20 Hollywood blockbusters.
Mr. Noh’s software uses fluid mechanics and dynamics to create the pitching and tossing of ocean waves seen during a rain storm in “Superman Returns” or a stampede of monsters in “Lord of the Rings.”
In contrast to the past, when every animation frame had to be drawn by hand, he explained, his new software allows producers to create diverse computer graphic scenes more easily by “simply calculating” the movements of waves mathematically and physically.
Mr. Noh is now teaching and further honing his computer graphics software with Mr. Kim’s students.
“The film ‘The Host’ was an instant hit in Korea, but unfortunately the computer graphics used were not made purely from Korean technology,” he said. “My goal is to make the Korean film industry grow into a leading one that does not have to borrow such graphics from abroad anymore.”
That may be his goal, but the head of the graduate school has something else in mind.
“I’m hoping that an Academy Award winner and Nobel literature laureate will come from one of my students in 10 years,” said Wohn Kwang-yun, dean of the Kaist Graduate School of Culture Technology.
Mr. Wohn has plenty of reasons to aspire so high. Aside from the digital storytelling course, other graduate courses Kaist offers let students combine culture and technology.
Chung Hui-ryong, a student of a physical interaction course, has invented and patented wireless gadgets for arranging music, and Oh Gwyang-myeong has devised an interactive chime that automatically starts playing when it senses a person is comfortable, judged by measuring body temperature, humidity and air pressure.
A Music and Sound Technology Lab course led by professor Kim Jeong-jin recently showcased music produced by a violin made of a gourd, a xylophone of bamboo sticks and an electric fiddle that sounds like the Korean traditional instrument, the haegeum.

by Lee Min-a
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