Saturday, September 1, 2012

All About 창원과학고 (Changwon Science High)

Changwon Science High's logo

I have just finished my first week of teaching! However, it was really only a half load of classes, because half of my students were on a class field trip to Japan and I didn't see any of them.

However, I think that ti's about time I wrote a little bit about my school, Changwon Science High School.

Of the twenty or so specialized science high schools in Korea, CSHS is the newest. It was built in 2010 and opened just last year. (The Korean school year runs from March to December, so I'm jumping in at the beginning of their second semester. Some students will graduate at the end of 2012, and I'll get new first-years next March.) The only other science high school in our province, Gyeongnam Science High, happens to be one of the oldest and most respected; it's in Jinju about one hour west, and Ryan, a fellow Fulbright ETA, is currently placed there.
CSHS' science building. Oh look, an observatory!
Changwon Science High sits partway up a hill called Namsan (southern mountain) on the northern edge of the city. I take a long walk around the hill to get to school from my host family's apartment. Theoretically, I could take the trails that run straight over the top, but that would involve more hiking than walking, and I'm not into doing that every morning!
A chemistry classroom. (Photo from the CSHS website)

Due to it having opened so recently, the campus and facilities are basically brand-spankin'-new, and it's obvious. On a tour of the school, I passed science classrooms and labs that were better-equipped than my college biology lab. The school is in possession of a scanning electron microscope and a small observatory for their astronomy classes. Every classroom I've seen so far comes with a smartboard, and the math classrooms have floor-to-ceiling chalkboards.

It's not just the cool gadgets, though; the designers were apparently thinking green with this new school. The main building's atrium and the gymnasium are partially lit by skylights, which saves energy for lighting. There is also a huge thing of solar panels on the roof, and some of the outdoor lights are powered by mini-wind turbines! I love how so much of it was constructed to conserve energy or make use of renewable energy sources. I like to think that these students' environmental science and earth science classes are showing them just how great of an example their school is of today's green architecture.
On the left, you can see solar panels on the roof. On the bottom right is the cafeteria, and between them is the student dormitory.
As for the students themselves, well, like I said, I've only met the second-years so far. Each class year is divided into four homeroom classes of twenty-two to twenty-five students. This makes a total of fewer than one hundred students per class year. And because our school is so new, there are still only two class years. A school of fewer than two hundred students total! And I get to teach them all!
Students in uniform (for special occasions) (CSHS website)

My students have already surprised me with their English level. Don't get me wrong; they're not all fluent. But I was told to expect an unexpectedly low level of speaking ability and comprehension. You see, while these students are top-of-the-line and test really well, the entrance exam they must pass in order to gain admittance to this school is pure math and science, plus an interview in Korean. They simply don't need to know any English to get here. So, I had fairly low expectations. As it turns out, some of them are very good, some of them are average, and some of them have no idea what gibberish is coming out of my mouth in class. It's the students who really get what's going on -- including one student who wanted to ask me about my thoughts on the Korean education system instead of doing the in-class activity -- who have been a pleasant surprise.

Whether my students can converse with me or not, all of them will have to ace the English section of the Korean SAT, so they still have English grammar classes -- which are usually taught in Korean -- and they study reading comprehension like no other. And they study biology, chemistry, computer science, calculus, and physics like no other. My students literally live at school; it's a boarding school that lets them go home twice a month on weekends. Their schedule is: wake up, breakfast, study hall, morning classes, lunch, afternoon classes, "extracurricular" classes (like more calculus and more physics), dinner, and then study hall until midnight. Five days a week, sometimes six, for two years. (Like most other science high schools, students are pushed to apply for university and graduate after two years instead of the normal three; imagine an entire class of American high school juniors being driven to apply for colleges one year early! If they aren't accepted into the top schools, they try again in their third year.) I asked my co-teacher if they're ever allowed off campus. Well, it's kind of a no-brainer: they don't have time to go off campus. Some students play soccer after lunch, but there are no sports teams. There are no drama clubs, no music classes, no school publications, no student organizations of any kind*. Just sitting in class all day and studying in small cubicles all night!

*There are, in fact, a number of student clubs, including academic clubs, volunteering clubs, a soccer club, and a dance club. I was wrong about this! But apparently all of the clubs can only meet on Sunday afternoons, because that's when the students have free time.
The entire campus, as it looked shortly after construction was completed. It's bigger than it looks... Also, where all the brown patches are, many pretty studio apartments are currently being constructed. But there's really nothing else around. (CSHS website)
With such an insane schedule, my students are often tired. But they still have tons of personality! I can already tell who the class clowns in each homeroom class are. I'm hoping that they'll help me energize classes for fun activities each day. Since they study English like Americans study Latin (read: without any motivation), I'm hoping to get them to use English in more interesting and relevant contexts. Here's to starting things off right at Changwon Science High!
This is their gymnasium and auditorium building. It looks awesome!
P.S. Just for the record, the cafeteria food here is fantastic. ;)

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