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Seoul International School Explores Korean Demilitarized Zone and its Biodiversity

By Dr. Jim Gerhard with contributor Angela Choe
Seoul International School Explores Korean Demilitarized Zone and its Biodiversity

Extraordinarily unique learning experiences are a common part of the programs offered to students in international schools. Seoul International School (SIS) in South Korea is no exception. Although there are many familiar sponsored activities and clubs found on any of our campuses around the world, such as Habitat and Save the Children, one that provides a unique experience not found elsewhere is the SIS DMZ Biodiversity Club.
The DMZ club, whose activities include visiting and cataloging levels of biodiversity in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, is a high school venture spearheaded by globally mindful students. Bold and ambitious high school learners navigate both political and physical boundaries to create learning opportunities that are an extraordinary example of how education can bridge almost any gap.
The DMZ lies along the heavily fortified political boundary between the developed and modernized Republic of Korea (South) and the less developed and less modern People’s Republic of Korea (North). North Korea is known to some as a Stalinist state and refers to itself as a self-reliant Socialist state. As a nation-state, it represents imbalance and instability for many other countries.
South Korea, by contrast, is a modern and highly developed leader on the world stage, which also consistently boasts some of the highest rates of academic success. The DMZ division between these formerly united Koreas is quite possibly one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. Lying along the 38th parallel, it stands as a geopolitical hotspot attracting concern.
Visiting such a place is neither for the faint-of-heart nor for your typical high school student. Yet visit the DMZ they do, this group of involved and committed eco-enthusiasts from SIS.
The DMZ Eco-club, associated with a Korean university group of the same name, is comprised of a dozen SIS high school students who venture north of Seoul and to the farthest reaches of South Korea once a month to tread lightly on the dangerous, yet interesting trails that crisscross the DMZ. Students photograph and examine various forms of biodiversity in this distinctive ecological locale.
“Due to the absence of human involvement, flora and fauna flourishes in the DMZ, providing an excellent area for ecological research” explained the students who petitioned Principal Jim Gerhard for permission to display photographs of their DMZ exploration in the hope of educating other SIS students.
Stating their purpose was easy: “Despite the threat of recent industrial developments, the DMZ is an important reservoir for biodiversity; for example, the DMZ is a precious winter refuge for many endangered, migratory birds called Cheolsaes.” Students argued that areas of the world with such an extent of non-human intervention are slowly disappearing and people should be more informed.
Over the past year, the team conducted extensive fieldwork and research, allowing members to personally witness the untouched beauty of the region. They felt obligated to share the captured moments of this rare beauty through an exhibit, hoping to spur students’ interest in similar conservation efforts. High School students Grace Lee, Jeffrey Park, Jeaha Kim, and David Choe spearheaded a photo exhibit on behalf of the larger group of DMZ Eco Club members to showcase their efforts in the region.
“It is not easy,” said Jeffrey Park, in response to a question about where they go in the DMZ. “We work carefully but you have to be sure to stay on the marked trails, otherwise…”
“We are photographers, ecologists, botanists and outdoors people,” stated Grace Lee, “but mostly we love working with other people to find out more about the DMZ and ways to help save and protect our resources.” Crossing swamp lands, navigating overgrown and wild forest trails, and braving the cold at certain times during the year, the group steadily observes and takes notes on existing conditions and changes that are taking place in this protected zone. Their work is important to ecological, wildlife and environmental concerns, as they are examining an area that is virtually off-limits to all human presence.
It is a scientific adventure like no other. To the students it is hard work—this they recognize—but it is also a redeeming and personally rewarding way to learn about their country and contribute to research and environmental preservationist measures that will help to sustain natural areas and wildlife in a precarious expanse.
Recently, the group became even more accomplished. As they conducted follow-up research on the amount of suspended pollutants and total organic carbons (TOC) in the streams of the Tongil-chun, which flows through the DMZ, club members observed that isolated pollutants can cause differences in the gene expressions of organisms. The group of students used the identified Daphnia magna gene as a molecular indicator for ecological toxicity. Measuring the gene expression for 15,000 different Daphnia magna genes and comparing it to the ones found in different areas of the zone, they noticed some changes. With enough background information at hand, team members were able to discover a new gene amongst the Daphnia magna.
“This research process is very complex because it involved handling fragile organic molecules such as DNA, RNA, and enzymes in a lab environment,” said SIS junior Sohee Ahn, a member of the DMZ Eco Club. “A lot of precision and time is required for the data to be accurately processed.”
For high school students, this is an amazing discovery. Typically the students explore and investigate the DMZ during their freshman year, which includes taking a lot of photographs and painstakingly gathering data. Although they continue to visit the area as mentors to younger students, as sophomores they transition into research. The following year, as juniors with their research and laboratory techniques well underway, they move on to writing about their findings and publishing.
Regardless of their role, such collaborative visits promote a sense of scientific camaraderie among students and lend a sense of accomplishment as these educated young minds work for the good of society. Mostly, the students involved simply recognize the positive aspects of making a difference to help sustain and improve their world.
Dr. Jim Gerhard is a longtime overseas educator who is currently the high school principal at Seoul International School. Contributor Angela Choe is a current sophomore staff writer for the award-winning Tiger Times newspaper at the Seoul International School.

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