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Physics Education in Korea

Junehee Yoo

Korea is located in the eastern section of the Asian continent. The total land area of south Korea is about 110,000 km2 and the population is 48 million . Thus the population density is 476 persons per 1 km2 approximately which is among highest in the world. As of 2002 per capita GNI of Korea is $ 10,013. Semi conductor, iron-steel, ship building, automobile and machinery are main exports. Recently, IT industry has grown and the broad band internet are used widely.

Many people believe that education has been the major source of trained manpower in various fields, especially science and engineering up to now. But recently the decline in the numbers and falloff in quality of science and engineering major students are considered as big problems.

School Physics

Korea has a single track 6-3-3-4 system which maintains a single line of school levels. To ensure the standard quality of education, the national curriculum for each school levels, criteria for development of textbooks and instructional materials are prescribed by law. The national curriculum has revised on a periodic basis and the 7th curriculum had been revised in 1997 under the principles of enriching elementary and basic education, increasing self-directed ability and increasing autonomy at the level of local and school.

The 7th curriculum introduces ten basic common subjects, autonomous activities, and special activities that cover the ten years from the first year of elementary school through the first year of high school. As a result, all students take science lessons three times a week up to the 10th grade. Elective subjects are introduced for the final two years of high school and physics I/II, chemistry I/II, biology I/II, and earth science I/II are provided as elective subjects. Science and engineering track students enroll in two of them at least. Physics is not the most popular science subject as the Table 1 shows that 18 % of the whole student take it at Mock College Scholastic Ability Test in 2005.

Table 1. Physics I and II taking at Mock College Scholastic Ability Test 2005

(unit: %)




Percentage of the total examinees (N=533,625)

Percentage of the examinees who take science subjects (N=179,057)




Earth science




Earth science



















According to the TIMSS-R and PISA studies, the average achievement of Korea seems like to be good superficially(Table 2). But internally several problems, such as low percentage and low score of upper 5 % group, the biggest gender difference, and low score of affective domains(Table 4) are found.

Recently, WISE(Women in Science and Engineering) has been launched to promote the girls’ taking science and engineering track. And large scale of promotions like modernizing lab, improving physics textbook, and scientific culture events are undergoing. Also some encouraging results in international competitions, such as Physics Olympiad and IYPT have been heard (Table 5). But on the other hands, the industry is complaining the falloff of manpower quality, and it is regarded as serious for the next generation economy.

Table 2. Rank of Korea at TIMSS-R and PISA studies

International study



Number of countries

Rank of Korea for Average Achievement

Rank of Korea for the upper 5 %

Rank of Korea for gender difference



Grade 8







Grade 10





New trends in Physics Education

Among many approaches to boost the number of students who take science and engineering track and raise the quality of achievements in physics, two featured enterprises, scientific exploration at cultural sites and MBL will be introduced.

Physics Education in cultural context--

Scientific exploration at cultural site, such as old palace, world cup stadium, world cultural heritage, and museums have been developed and researched actively from the year of 1998, the 1st APEC Youth Science Festival was held. At that time, scientific exploration programs at Changdukgung palace, Celadon village, Korean folk village and Old printing museum were developed and evaluated as unique programs during the 1st APEC Youth Science Festival. After that, programs for various sites have been developed and many research have suggested that scientific exploration at cultural sites would give a chance for students to do a real science and settle the science, originated in the western culture, in Korea.

One example is the scientific exploration at National Folk Museum, located at Downtown Seoul, which exhibits more than 7,000 collections about highlights of cultural heritages, things for everyday life. Because of it’s huge amount of collections, students and teachers can choose some of favorite exhibitions among them according to their interests and needs. Thus differentiated approach for students’ abilities and interests would be done as we expect during exploration as well as STS approach. Especially, at the National Folk Museum, many models and miniatures are exhibited to show the process of making metal arts, celadon and handcrafts. Also, the old instruments such as tread mill, snow shoes, sun dials, distilling pottery and so on, can show the way how the physical principles can be applied directly while modern instrument looks like black boxes. But most of the exhibitions are untouchable, so activities at the museum are restricted within estimation and observation. Also for the new generation the collections are so unacquainted that they might be uninterested in the collections and feel difficulties in elaborating their own inquiry problems.

A group of physics educators, leaded by Emeritus Professor Sungjae Pak at Seoul National University, have been developing the guidebooks for students and science teachers and doing researches. Through the research results and discussions, a primitive teaching model has been regarded as a proper approach to the scientific exploration at cultural sites.

Fig 7. Middle school students are doing experiments using MBL equipments.

Introducing computerized equipment--
Korean government and opinion leaders are voicing their concerns in falloff in science and engineering major students from 2001. Especially physicists are worrying about the radical falloff in physics major students. One of ways to boost the number of science and engineering major students is improve school science education and modernizing the school science and physics lab is getting to be a big issues. Microcomputer-Based-Lab(MBL) is one of the keywords and many pre service and in service teacher training courses are adapted MBL experiments. Especially, sound related experiments are getting popular with MBL.

Also Korea Science Foundation has held a nation wide competition for middle school students and high school students, in which participants perform scientific inquiry experiments using computers.

Junehee Yoo is an assistant professor at Department of Physics Education, Seoul National University, Korea.