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[Editorial] Crumbling Education in Basic Sciences

Posted February. 08, 2007 07:09,   


Problems in Korea’s mathematics and science education are bordering on a national catastrophe. “Korea is so desperately short of postgraduate researchers that we have to lure students from Vietnam or India with offers of gifts,” said Chae Young-bok, president of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies, during a talk with Yun Jong-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. Although Korea’s crisis in basic sciences is nothing new, it is still worrying.

Seoul National University asked a number of science major students from nine Korean universities to solve a selection of math problems, and the average score was 28 out of 100. The questions were not based on calculus or engineering mathematics, but were chosen from middle school and high school textbooks. About 30 to 40 percent of high school graduates who received an acceptance offer by Seoul National University for science or engineering major, did not accept the offer until the deadline of regular admission applications, which was yesterday. Some 20 percent of the winners of the International Science Olympiad chose to study medicine, as did 35 out of the 80 biology or chemistry winners.

Businesses that play a pivotal role in sustaining both the economy and the livelihood of the population are affected by the lack of human resources in science and technology. “Those who don’t know fundamental mathematics and sciences are useless to corporations because they lack creativity,” Yoon stated. Korea has become quite an affluent country thanks to science and technology. However, Korea’s growth engine is on the brink of disaster due to a shortage of talented personnel, and all this before Korea has reached the threshold of becoming an advanced nation.

The government is largely responsible for the failure. The government excessively emphasized students’ rights to select subjects under the 7th National Education Curriculum, which has been applied to secondary schools since 2002, while failing to address the importance of fundamental sciences. According to a survey of the Board of Audit and Inspection, 29 percent of the first year science and engineering students in four-year universities nationwide, studied social studies instead of science in high school and 55 percent of them did not learn calculus, probability and statistics.

This is exactly what the U.S., Britain and Japan, which have placed strong emphasis on mathematics and basic science education, as well as China and India, are pursuing. U.S. President George W. Bush declared a doubling of the research budget for basic science in the coming decade and prioritized the training of mathematics and science teachers in his 2006 the State of the Union Address. China is also doing its best to attract talented people, declaring, “We will not ask the ideologies or party affiliations of scientists.” In Japan, which produced five winners of the Fields Medal – considered to be the Nobel Prize of math – the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is taking the initiative of demanding an education revival.

Then how is Korea handling the issue? Educational reform is drifting without an objective and students are becoming the scapegoats of educational experiments. As recently witnessed during the process of revising the national curriculum, the internal conflicts between teachers prevail without a clear vision for the nation and its children.

“There is excellent science education behind Nobel Prizes,” Justin Dillon, professor at King’s College, stated during his visit to Korea last month, stressing that basic sciences such as mathematics, physics and chemistry are the onsets of all other sciences. “Only those who are strong at science and physics theories can develop the economy,” said Fujiwara Masahiko, author of the bestseller “The Dignity of a State.” You cannot improve in either mathematics or physics overnight. Though belated, the government must change its mentality. If not, Korea may have to face a gloomy future within a decade.