Esteemed Senior Advisor for Teaching & Learning becomes Associated Professor

[Article by Nane Zietsman]

The Faculty of Engineering is proud to have conferred the title of Associate Professor on Prof Karin Wolff. This title is awarded in recognition of her significant contribution to Engineering Education, Curriculum Development, Multi-Modal Technology-Based Teaching & Learning, and Higher Education Research & Policy, not only at Stellenbosch but in South Africa and even internationally.

Prof Wolff’s work gained recognition in both academia and industry. Her exceptional career path started in the late 80s while she worked in film and television. “I grew up in an automotive engineering household, two generations to be precise. Despite this and my science-based schooling, I rebelled and went off to study drama at the University of Cape Town. I entered the film and television industry just as celluloid became digital. As a film production manager and producer, I was fascinated by the innovative technologies and equally concerned because many of my crew could not adapt. This experience planted the seed for what was to be the focus of my PhD research many years later: Complex problem-solving in engineering industries. I was particularly interested in the differences and relationship between scientific, mathematical, and logic-based thinking,” shares Prof Wolff.

After leaving the film and television industry, Prof Wolff spent over a decade teaching English Technical and Professional Communication in Japan and Germany, primarily to engineers. Upon returning to South Africa in 2005, Prof Wolff was appointed to the Mechatronics programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Her work involved teaching first- and final year industrial and mechatronic engineering students and placing them in appropriate industries for in-service training. During this time, Prof Wolff gained unique insights into the South African industrial landscape and the gaps between the Higher Education curriculum and what industry required.

She was encouraged by Prof Cecilia Jacobs, who served as Director of the CTL from 2013-2019, to enrol for a Master’s in Higher Education Studies at the University of Cape Town. “I fell in love with applied research, so simply continuing onto a PhD and Postdoctoral Fellowship came naturally. My research allowed me to investigate real-world problems such as why engineering students struggle at different stages of their programmes. I am known for being a networker, so bringing my academic colleagues on board felt normal. By showing them my research findings, I could help them ‘see’ what was happening in their classrooms, and before I knew it, I unintentionally became an academic developer!”

Reflecting on her career, Prof Wolff shares her biggest lesson: “It takes a village to accomplish change. My communication skills and enthusiasm led me to participate in many international collaborative research projects on engineering education. Through these involvements, I saw the difference it makes when one approaches teaching and learning as a partnership between the various role players in a faculty. For example, when I initially joined Stellenbosch University part-time, one of my roles involved working on an international ‘Engineering-in-Context’ project. This gave me broader access to engineering academics and contributed to what I believe is a ground-breaking community of practice in the Faculty. We call these Recommended Engineering Education Practices,” says Prof Wolff, who is now a Senior Advisor for Teaching & Learning at the Faculty of Engineering.

Prof Wolff explains that Recommended Engineering Education Practices (REEP) comes from a collective Faculty effort. “I always tell everyone that I love my job in the Faculty. I get to work with incredibly dedicated, concerned, and brilliant people who, together, championed REEP. The purpose of REEP is to promote partnerships within the Faculty. Those involved in REEP have gone on to mentor their younger and newer colleagues and share their innovative practices in many forums. This work has been published in significant global journals and conferences,” enthuses Prof Wolff.

Prof Wolff’s deep understanding of the Higher Education landscape has been of immeasurable value to the Faculty in our efforts to align ourselves with the changing needs of students and the industry. “Universities are now more challenged than ever to bridge the gap between secondary and tertiary education. Our students, and the industry we prepare them for, look very different from ten years ago. Therefore, academics need to develop a better understanding of how learning happens and how it is best facilitated in current times,” explains Prof Wolff.

The Faculty’s endorsement for her promotion to Associate Professor bears testimony to the incredible value of Prof Wolff’s work. In return, Prof Wolff credits the Faculty for giving her support and creative freedom to excel in her career. “I am incredibly fortunate to have a faculty management team and environment that is supportive and accepting. What we have achieved as a collective is far beyond anything that I initially imagined possible. I am excited for this next chapter and the future of this institution,” concludes Prof Wolff.

Photograph: Professor Karin Wolff