Mijung Kim brings global perspectives to science education

Skills: Writing

Written for the UAlberta Department of Elementary Education
March 2, 2015

The impact of globalization on science education is obvious to Mijung Kim. As digital communications expand into classrooms, teachers are there to ensure that today’s students become the stewards of tomorrow’s hyper-connected societies. Since joining the Department of Elementary Education this January, Kim has brought this global perspective to her own students, empowering them to transform young minds into engaged citizens.

Kim began her career in Seoul, South Korea, where she taught elementary school for nearly eight years. In this time, she witnessed a revolution in teaching, as new technologies began to enter classrooms. When schools introduced new curricula focused on English and technology as global literacy, many of her older contemporaries opted to retire rather than investing years into learning these new methods at the end of their careers. This opened the door for a new generation of educators to leverage these technologies, which Kim says inspired her to learn more about the notion of globalization and science education in global contexts.

“I wanted to develop myself as a good teacher, and I wanted to have more global context,” Kim says. She moved to Calgary in 1996 to learn English and study globalization, where she says that the new environment gave her a much wider perspective on educational concepts.

“I learned a lot of English, but I learned more about people and culture and diversity in society.”

Kim returned briefly to Korea with these new skills in her arsenal, but she says she still had an urge to learn even more. In 2000, she came to the University of Alberta to study her Master’s and Doctoral programs, focusing on the impacts of science and technology on global society and their role in science education. Upon completion of her program in 2008, she taught as an assistant professor in Natural Sciences and Science Education at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. She then spent four years at the University of Victoria, working directly with elementary schools to improve science education practices.

“I like to understand the role of science education in a more humanistic way. What would be the role of science and technology to develop our society more with social justice and the humanities?”

While Kim feels that her background working with colleagues in Singapore and Korea helps grant her a unique perspective, she’s careful not to look at the world of education in terms of clear political or social divisions. Rather, she says that this international experience helps her to recognize the increasing importance on curriculum that is contextualized to local social and cultural needs. While working at the University of Victoria with elementary schools, Kim applied these principles to develop science curriculum focused on problem solving in a local context.

“We started with a big idea. For example, how can we protect our marine ecosystem on the west coast? We live right beside the ocean, so students have a lot of experience with the ocean, and a lot of stories from the ocean,” she says.

This comes in direct response to what Kim feels is one of the greatest obstacles in effective science education: many traditional curricula still focus on conceptual knowledge, which she says fails to foster higher levels of cognitive processes like analytical thinking. Instead, she would like to see a more interdisciplinary approach with emphasis placed on collective reasoning and argumentation strategies, encouraging students to solve problems by considering the context and applying knowledge from multiple sources. In the case of her work in Victoria, connecting lessons to student experiences fostered curiosity and critical thinking, which in turn led to students engaging with material on a deeper level.

“Another important question for me is, when people are talking about scientific literacy, how important it is to educate our children and students to become citizens who can process that critical thinking and problem solving. That’s the ultimate goal of scientific literacy, and the role of science educators is promoting those skills and promoting those abilities,” Kim says.

As part of her work at the University of Alberta, Kim plans to develop a more feasible framework for teaching strategies that focus on argumentation in a problem solving context. In turn, she hopes that this will reveal a deeper understanding of what motivates students to become invested in science education — and to better explain why some students do not.

“A lot of researchers have been researching what age students really think that science is not for them, and lose interest … Believe it or not, grade 4. Very early, they can decide that science is not for their career.”

Through her research, Kim plans to explore this issue to find the cause, whether it may be teaching styles, curriculum design, or other external factors. Although not every student will pursue science-driven careers, she feels that it’s important for all students to gain a strong understanding of scientific thinking. As today’s students will grow up in connected, interdependent societies, she says it’s critical to learn how to think as a truly global citizen.

“We really need to beyond teaching factual, conceptual knowledge … We really need to go beyond that level and push our students to develop their problem solving skills. And to do so, we need to think about all of the social interactions and collaborations, because collaboration is the key to working together to develop knowledge integration. You can’t really solve the problem by yourself, because everyone contributes with different ideas and different knowledge.”