Friday, September 7, 2012

Science Fair on Steroids

I am proud to announce that I finally left Changwon! I spent a grand total of seven hours away from home, five of which I passed on a bus. It takes two and a half hours by highway to go to Daejeon (대전), home to such institutions as KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and the National Science Museum of Korea that would, fittingly, attract a contingent of first-years and science teachers for a field trip.

As my current schedule has me teaching only first years on Fridays, and the field trip meant that I would otherwise have nothing to do all day, I was invited to tag along. A little surprised but grateful for the opportunity to connect with some students outside of the classroom, I said yes.

Everyone slept on the way to Daejeon. So much for interaction outside of the classroom.

Our destination was the National Science Museum (국립중앙과학관), but we weren't actually there to see any of its exhibits. Rather, in a separate large exhibition hall, some sort of nation-wide science fair had taken place, and there were hundreds of posters on display -- the prize-winning experiments performed by students and teachers from all over Korea. Apparently, my students were supposed to examine all of them, take photos and notes, and get inspiration for their own research projects, on which they have been working assiduously this entire year.
CSHS students browse long rows of successful science experiments, taking notes and photos. (By the way, my elusive host sister is the girl in the yellow shirt. I have seen her a total of... maybe six times, now? since arriving in Changwon over two weeks ago.)
There was an enormous variety of projects at the fair, and I was blown away by the ingenuity and subject matter. It was all in Korean, of course, so I barely understood the exact research questions of most, but the poster displays themselves were also incredible. Some seemed professionally done. I saw experiments done on the physics of bowling pins, LCD screens, seahorse physiology, dinosaur footprints from a fossil dig in Daegu, water filtration, robots, bacteria, skin allergies, and something about photographing Jupiter's moons. The experiment that appeared to have won the Grand Prize was one done on a cryptic sculpture of Buddha that was said to change its smile depending on the angle of the sun. The question was whether or not the physics of light and shadow actually made this possible. There were, in particular, lots of biology experiments done on animals, and I saw taxidermied birds, small sharks in glass jars, water snails, silkworms, and what looked like a tank full of dead penis fishes.

Seriously, the breadth and depth of science at this fair was overwhelming.
This elaborate poster and display includes a dead hawk, a fossil of Archaeopteryx, model planes, and a Simpsons book. I guess it has something to do with... flight? It won a gold medal, anyhow.
On the way home, I did get to chat with some students eager to practice their English with me. Even as we talked, I got the impression (or more like the reinforcement of a disclaimer I'd already been given) that these students don't have much personal interest or investment in English. They want to know just enough to pass the English language section of the Korean SAT, and maybe enough to chat with a foreigner for a bit.

In fact, the student with whom I talked the most straight up told me that nobody liked English grammar class, but that my conversation class seemed to be more fun and that it was good that I wouldn't give any exams. I joked that maybe I would give an exam, and she replied, "Oh, then I won't like it." I quickly changed the proposal to making it a sing-your-favorite-American-pop-song exam, and she smiled again, noting that the boys probably would not like that kind of test.

I'm hoping that by the end of this semester, they will be even half as excited about English as they are about the science that takes up their entire lives.