[Viewpoint] BRICs may soon outpace KoreaI recently had a chance to observe promising young technology talents. I was among the judges for Global Challenge, an overseas summer training program sponsored by LG Group. The competition was intense, as the winners are guaranteed hiring by LG upon graduation. I also was in New York at the time when the Microsoft-organized Imagine Cup, a premier technology competition for students, was held.
Students all over the world compete in the affectionately named “Nerd Olympics” with imaginative software and innovative technology to solve various problems in the world. This year, young sensations came from the newly advanced economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, popularly called BRICs.
Based on these two experiences, I arrived at the conclusion that our future is dark if we do not do something soon about Korea’s higher education in science, technology and engineering. Our student contestants merely produced none-too-different and insipid research projects on issues like humanitarian aid for Africa and cleaner industrialization. Their English language skills were also unimpressive. They pitched their projects in practiced, word-by-word readings of their text and stumbled during the questioning time.
In contrast, engineering and technology students from the BRICs were full of confidence as they presented themselves in the Imagine Cup. Charity to them is a pretentious luxury. They instead dug up themes from everyday life and recreated them with refreshingly new perspectives and ideas. A team from Tsinghua University inBeijing made an application to turn intimidating and tedious hospital checkups into a fun experience. Their software measures lung capacity by having a patient blow into a harmonica to make a simple tune. Most of their works were creative and applicable as market products.
The students were also all fluent in English. They were proud that they were studying engineering and that technology studies were the most popular back home because they can lead to a brighter future for individuals and their countries. Jon Perera, Microsoft’s general manager of academic programs, said there are a million engineering students in BRICs countries and that the governments give enormous support to science and engineering schools. Many contenders from the BRICs have already won admission to top U.S. universities. Star teams from Japan and Korea were out after the first round.
There was a time when Korean science engineering academies and universities brimmed with aspiration and confidence. During the double-digit growth days, elite students flocked to chemical, electronics and engineering departments. They became the heroes of the country’s economic success stories.
But those days are long gone. An elite science academy in Busan that was established with a special law to foster technology wizards drew top-class students around the country. But most from the school’s first graduating class now study at medical schools. Talented students simply do not want to pursue careers in the technology field.
Meanwhile, technology and engineering schools from the BRICs are making fast advances. The Imagine Cup contenders from the rapidly growing economies all hope to start technology companies. Many ideas from the Imagine Cup have received sponsorship from venture capitalists around the world.
These BRICs nations will likely shift to the technology-intensive industrial structure powered by gifted and passionate technology talents. The young talents of these countries are sweating in labs for new developments and innovations while their Korean counterparts seek easier and more lucrative ways of life.
Countries that have been in power since ancient Roman days have passed their heydays and are slowly running out of steam. Korea still has a ways to go in industrialization to join the ranks of advanced nations, but the epicenter for industrialization - science and engineering schools - is closing down all too soon.
I could not help thinking that we may soon be outpaced by the BRICs after watching the Imagine Cup Finals. Sometimes, we need to stand back and look beyond electoral votes to see the bigger picture. We may be missing something more important than free school lunches or cheaper college tuition fees.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho