Make math and science the priorityKorea’s science education is at a critical crossroads. That happened due to the introduction of the seventh amendment to the educational curriculum. Because of the new system, the number of students who take science classes, such as physics and chemistry, has decreased drastically. As a result, it has become much more difficult to educate scientists who will help develop our science and engineering in the future. It has now become possible for citizens not to get even the minimum level of education in science that is needed in our modern society.
If we look at the eighth amendment of the curriculum, which is being prepared by the Education Ministry, the situation could become even worse.
In the beginning, the ministry suggested introducing a system in which science department applicants could choose four to five subjects from the following: science, engineering, home economics, physics I, physics II, chemistry I, chemistry II, geodynamics I, geodynamics II, agricultural bio-technology, ocean science, home economics, business inauguration and administration, engineering technology, information and communication technology and computer sciences.
Some time later, however, the government proposed a new system in which the subjects were divided into eight groups, and university applicants could choose one from each group as a compulsory subject. The deputy prime minister of education then reversed the proposal a couple of days ago, saying the current system of five compulsory subject groups ― humanities, science and engineering, arts, foreign language and cultural studies ― would be maintained.
In response to the confusion created by the planned amendment, six science-and-technology-related organizations raised objections to it in a press conference on Wednesday. They included the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies, the Citizens’ Coalition for Scientific Society, the Korean Academy of Science and Technology, the National Academy Engineering of Korea, the Council of Deans of Natural Science Colleges and the Council of Deans of Engineering Colleges. They demanded the adding of three groups, such as mathematics, science and home engineering, on top of the original five groups, and designating mathematics and science as compulsory subjects. Furthermore, they demanded that students, either in humanities or natural science courses, be required to take more than two subjects in each of the mathematics, natural sciences and social science subject groups respectively.
The education curriculum introduced by the ministry, which allows the choice of many selective courses, has many problems. Our high schools have enough teachers and facilities for a variety of elective courses. When there are many electives to choose from, students prefer subjects easier than math and science, and subjects beneficial for them in the College Scholastic Ability Test and university entrance exams.
According to 2004 statistics, about 25.8 percent of high school second- and third-year students attended a science I class. But less than 20 percent of science course students chose science I last year. Moreover, only 9.7 percent of them studied science II. The number of students who chose science II for the College Scholastic Ability Test was only 6.1 percent.
If students without basic knowledge of math and science enter universities in big numbers, they cannot study their major subjects properly. And then their poor academic ability will be transferred to businesses or research institutes, resulting in a crisis of national competitiveness later.
When such problems were detected in Japan, it started an overall reform of its education system. Following the Japanese example, we adopted the seventh amendment of the curriculum. Unfortunately, however, the eighth amendment is now moving in the direction of expanding the number of selective courses.
The U.S. Academy of Science and Technology and the National Academy of Engineering of the United States last year presented four education tasks to the U.S. Congress, which asked them to study the most urgent tasks for maintaining the economic prosperity of the United States in the future.
The first task was about educating students from kindergarten to the final year of high school. The first national agenda was to increase the pool of talented U.S. citizens by improving the quality of science and math education for all students. To implement this plan, they proposed training 10,000 math and science teachers annually and enhancing the ability of 250,000 teachers every year.
Math and science are not subjects that can be chosen. They are the core elements on which the country’s entire economy depends. If we sow the seeds of math and science now, we can expect to see the prosperity of our nation in the future. However, if we leave our education on mathematics and science alone as it is now, there is no future for us. Math and science education tops our national agenda. They should naturally be designated as compulsory subjects.
*The writer, a professor of engineering at Seoul National University, is the representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Scientific Society. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
BY Lee Byeong-gi