Innovator Interview: Hee-Sun Lee

Hee-Sun LeeHee-Sun’s interest in science blossomed early, when she was only six years old, while watching an animated movie about robots saving the Earth. She became fascinated by space—by how small she was when she looked up to the sky—and in middle school she decided she wanted to work for NASA. Since she excelled in science, she thought to herself, “Think big!”

With the support of her parents, Hee-Sun graduated from Seoul National University in 1990 and taught science in middle school. In 1992, she was accepted to a Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Michigan. In Korea, she had memorized facts and provided answers to predetermined problems, even in college. “The Korean curriculum at that time—that’s the way students were evaluated in science. There was nothing about creating experiments, none of the inquiry stuff the Concord Consortium is doing,” she explains.

So Michigan was a jolt. When her thesis advisor in physics asked what she wanted to investigate, she thought, “What kind of question is that? Why do you want me to come up with my own question?” Ultimately, they both agreed that Ph.D. training was not for her, and she received a master’s degree. She laughs about it now, but at the time, she wondered if that was the end of her education.

While reflecting on why a Ph.D. in physics hadn’t worked out, she applied to the science education Ph.D. program at Michigan, and decided to do the opposite of her first advanced degree in physics. “I started talking even though my English wasn’t that good, I actively asked questions even though they were not well formulated, and I volunteered for research work even though I didn’t know how,” she says. This turned out to be a critical moment in her path to a career in educational research.

Inspired to figure out how learning works, she saw everything from the perspective of her experience—cultural issues, science education, technology, problem solving. “I cannot blame myself that it didn’t work out the way I intended in physics. It’s not because of me failing. There were systemic issues, curriculum issues, and social-cultural problems.” Hee-Sun credits Dr. Nancy Songer currently at Drexel University, Dr. Marcia Linn at the University of California, Berkeley, and the late Dr. Robert Tinker at the Concord Consortium with giving her the opportunity to do research and wait for an idea to blossom. It paid off. Hee-Sun’s postdoctoral research described knowledge integration— the idea that learners explain a particular phenomenon using and connecting knowledge pieces. After reviewing thousands of student responses, looking for knowledge units is now a habit for her.

At the Concord Consortium, Hee-Sun’s insights influenced principal investigator Amy Pallant’s High-Adventure Science project. The project brings frontier Earth and environmental science into the classroom, where uncertainty is part of the curriculum because the answers to questions scientists are currently studying are unknown. High-Adventure Science students wrestle with uncertainty as they use computational models and explore real-world data. But the work is not about students doubting themselves; it’s about making a transition from personal knowledge to thinking scientifically. And students are showing gains in pre-post measures. New research with automated scoring and feedback has increased the gains threefold. “We are not done yet!” Hee-Sun says, “The most difficult part of uncertainty is thinking about the limitations of the materials students are working with and how that limits the strength of the evidence and claim.”

Hee-Sun is thinking about how to pursue the idea of uncertainty in the InquirySpace project where students engage in real-world investigations, and encounter uncertainty as they collect data and try to generalize to broader systems. Hee-Sun’s original idea continues to bring excitement to her research.