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Science curriculum put under the microscope

May 21,2016
After it was discovered that a public high school in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, required students to pay about 4 million won ($3,400) for a science research and dissertation program that was supposedly intended to help them gain acceptance into prestigious universities, the Ministry of Education has vowed to take action.

In a popular program called Research and Education, or R&E, middle to high school students choose a scientific topic on their own, conduct experiments and write a dissertation about it. Since 2007, when Korean university admission boards began examining students’ extracurricular activities in addition to their school grades and university entrance test scores, the R&E program has been widely sought by students determined to attend renowned universities.

In April 2016, the public high school recruited students for a science program in which students, in groups of two to five, conducted experiments and wrote thesis papers on 21 different science topics. In order for the school to recruit university professors or graduate students and purchase research equipment, however, each team was asked to pay about 4 million won.

The Ministry of Education and the Korean Federation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity notified the school that such programs, which demand students to cover the experiment and research expenses, are inappropriate. The school has subsequently postponed the project.

This was the first time a government organization regulated the R&E program.

“We strongly recommend schools to adopt R&E programs so that students can voluntarily choose topics and research them freely,” said an official from the Ministry of Education. “But we don’t think it’s appropriate for schools to demand students and their parents to pay the expenses. After examining whether there are any other R&E programs that require students to pay a substantial amount of money, we will take administrative measures to discourage such programs.”

Another high school in Gangnam holds its R&E program with the help of one professor, who is an alumni, and financial support from the alumni association. The Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology and the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology also voluntarily assist the science research and thesis program of nearby high schools.

The Ministry of Education announced last February that it would expand subsidies to support R&E programs, so that it can be run in all high schools and not only limited to specialized science high schools.

Teachers from non-specialized schools, however, reacted with cynicism to the suggestion.

“Unlike the high schools in Gangnam, where there are many professors among the alumni or the students’ parents,” said a science teacher from a high school in northern Seoul, “our school doesn’t have someone who can volunteer to teach children on how to conduct scientific research or write a dissertation. Also, unlike science high schools, we don’t have a large number of science teachers, nor do they hold Ph.Ds.”

A principal from a high school in Gangnam also said, “I tried asking a lot of university professors for help, but they all refused, saying that it’s difficult for them to help students on a regular basis.”

With accusations emerging that students pay exorbitant fees to private academies to conduct scientific research and that some academies even ghostwrite theses on behalf of their students, universities started questioning the validity of research papers submitted by students during the admission process.

Some prestigious universities, such as Seoul National University and Korea University, said it would be more appropriate to prioritize student’s school grades instead of their science dissertations, adding that they will not look at the reports from the students in the future.

“R&E, which heavily depends on whether a high school has skilled science professors and experimental equipment, has little impact on how well students follow school curricula,” said Ahn Yeon-geun, the head of the Council for University Admission Guidance. “The government has to come up with guidelines to regulate universities from looking into the research papers.”

BY BAEK MIN-KYUNG, CHUN IN-SUNG [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]