‘Twas the Night Before Teaching

…and somewhere in Seoul,

Four women are wandering on a winter stroll,

We’ve liked jimjilbangs, jjimdak, bingsu, and daiso, 

But we all know the real fun begins tomorrow!

Tomorrow begins my third and final year of GTL Korea. I’ll save some sentimental ramblings for another day, but before we start teaching I want to give a (quick!) reflection on the last few years of MIT’s science camp at Yeomyung School.

Global Teaching Labs (GTL) sends MIT students to teach in a bunch of countries around the world. The programs vary in more ways than just the country: some target prep schools, some focus on STEM, some teach English, etc. What originally drew me to GTL Korea was that we would not only teach, but we had the freedom to completely decide and design our curriculum. I was extremely excited to write my own biology lessons, and the fact that I knew nothing about Korea somehow did not cross my mind.

So maybe I originally stumbled into Korea by chance, but I am so grateful I did. Learning to live and teach in Korea has been an amazing, unforgettable experience.

I have spent my last three Januarys teaching at Yeomyung, a specialized school for North Korean defectors living in Seoul. The first year I taught at Yeomyung was the second year MIT worked with the school. In most ways, MIT still knew very little about Yeomyung. We were told to expect troubled students with a difficult past. We were warned they may have no background at all in science. While we were told to teach in English, their English ability was described as “low”.

With a vision of distant, disengaged students with no prior science experience, we designed an introductory STEM curriculum full of hands on activities and demos. We were blind-sided when, on the first day of class, our students finished three days of material.


In 2016 we scrambled to put together more material every night. Every morning, we watched the students soak up the lessons and finish projects faster than we ever expected. It was a fantastic year, but it has been rewarding watch this program grow and change since then.

We teach students from a difficult past. We are aware that they have suffered tragedies we cannot imagine. But in 99 out of 100 ways, their history does not show. There will always be the class clown that distracts everyone. There will always be the stubborn kid that refuses to listen (but refuses to give up). The young girls will always be eager to know if you have a boyfriend, and the young boys will always be too shy to work with the young girls. They are (for middle school students!) happy, engaged, excited, and bright.

However, our greatest challenge teaching this group is the variation in age, language, and science background. Over the years, age has ranged from 14 to 30. Language has been “select at least one” from Chinese, Korean, and English. In 2016, several students only spoke Chinese. In 2017, one student was fluent in English but another could not write the latin alphabet. Science background has generally been stronger than we were first led to believe. At its lowest it is elementary school, and at its highest it was college-level. But all of these students in one classroom is a challenge to say the least.

The variation is mostly a result of how and when the student defected from North Korea. Some who were in the elite society in North Korea may have been able to defect directly to South Korea. Some others first escaped to China, where they may have lived for some time. This explains the Chinese shouted across our classroom (and why this year two members of our team speak Chinese). But every story is unique–and they are not my stories to tell.

In 2017 we broke the camp into modules: food science, material science, forensic science, and robotics. We found that everything hands-on was a blast, and that anything “lecture style” is hard when there is no one language everyone shares.

This year we are trying to transform the classroom into a mini maker space. Every morning we will teach a new skill through activities and demos. Every afternoon they will work on a Raspberry Pi project in teams. In the last week, they will all ideate, design, and build an individual project (shout out to MIT’s 2.009).

Every year has been great, but I am hoping this intensively project-based curriculum will work well for these students. Kelsey, Shine, and Emu have been incredible to work with as we have prepared, and I’m excited to teach with them!


These next two weeks will go by in a blur — but hopefully I will get in another post. If not, I’m sure Kelsey will be on-point with updates on the students, embarrassing photos of me, and selfies of us eating 😉

Here we go!




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