Engineering Faculty alumna excels as leading educator at world-renowned research university  

An alumna of the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU), Prof Karen Marais, was recently inducted into the Purdue Book of Great Teachers, a recognition of Purdue University’s most superb educators. Prof Marais is a Professor at the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Associate Head of Undergraduate Education at the American university that advances discoveries in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Prof Marais’ automatic inclusion comes after she received Purdue’s Murphy Award in 2021, which is the university’s highest honour for undergraduate teaching. Purdue’s Book of Great displays the names of 467 Purdue faculty members since the book was started in 1999.

Prof Marais completed her BEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 1994 at SU. In 2005, she received her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aerospace Engineering, and she has been at Purdue since 2009.

In an online conversation with Prof Karin Wolff, Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning at the Engineering Faculty, Prof Marais admits that although she tries to be a good teacher, most of the time, she feels like she’s not. “I think the more you care about doing something well, the more you care when you feel like you’re not doing it well.”

Prof Marais says she has spent a lot of time reading about teaching, trying to understand the things that are going on and different ways to approach teaching, and has also attended various training sessions for teaching. “I even spent a lot of time on The Chronicle of Higher Education, just reading up on things and trying to implement them in my classes. The efforts that I’ve done in my classroom have been focused on trying to create a better experience for the students,” she says.

Asked about what the key principles are in guiding her teaching, Prof Marais says she always tries to convey passion. “If I can’t convey interest in a particular topic, how on earth can I expect my students to find the topic interesting? When I walk into the classroom, I leave whatever is going on outside the door and am excited and passionate about what I’m talking about,” she says.

Secondly, she says being organised is vital so the students know what is expected of them. “Students need to know when assignments are due, when they can expect to get their grades back, and so forth. If you don’t do that, then everything falls apart.”

She adds: “Lastly, the third thing is having a reason for everything I do. I need to be able to explain to my students everything I do in class and why I’m doing it this way.”

On engaging with students, Prof Marais has a mixed approach that involves traditional lecturing, active problem solving, and many student presentations. “Ultimately, I try to listen and talk with my students. During group work, I will sit with them and ask them how things are going. I want to be approachable to them.”

Over the past couple of years, they have also started an undergraduate teaching assistant programme, which aims to create a teaching team instead of her talking to the students and having instructors in charge.

Asked if her students are prepared for the workplace, Prof Marais philosophically answers: “I ask myself, have I prepared my students for life? That is what guides my thinking. The biggest thing I try to teach my students is the ability to think for themselves, to seek answers themselves, and encourage them to go and find out.”

[Article by Amber Viviers]