Dr. Rachel Kajfez

2023 KEEN Rising Star

Dr. Rachel Kajfez, Associate Professor, The Ohio State University, is a 2023 KEEN Rising Star. Learn more in the below interview.

Dr. Rachel Kajfez

“I get very passionate about projects that have tangible change in education. I don’t know what the future of the field is, but I know it has to constantly evolve and change to keep up with the world. Anything that allows me to try something new gets me really excited.”

How did you develop your approach to teaching? How does entrepreneurial mindset (EM) align with it?

Watch and listen. I know that seems very simple, but over the years I’ve had AMAZING teachers and been to AMAZING workshops or paper sessions. I try to really listen and be present in those moments so I can translate what I learned or experience into my own teaching. I think this really relates to being curious. I’m constantly looking for new approaches, techniques, assignments, etc. to improve my teaching practice.

Talk about your teaching methods. What works? How have your methods changed over time? What have you discovered?

I am a very active educator. I ask a lot of questions of my students during class and want to truly engage each of them in discussion. This is true for a grad class with 5 students and an undergraduate lecture of 300. While the approach may change, the goal is the same and that goal has worked well in supporting students in their learning.

Over time I’ve learned to wait and be patient with my students. While my active style works well for me and has been successful, not all students are ready for it so I need to give them time to adjust.

What’s one of your favorite projects you’ve had students do?

I have always loved teaching our robot project in the first-year. Students need to think deeply about their work and truly problem solve. I love supporting them in developing their approach to challenges.

"My favorite day is the day they don’t ask me a question. That might seem silly, but it means they have learned to problem solve on their own as a team. That’s huge!"

What brings you joy in your work?

I truly love seeing students succeed. Whether that’s in the classroom or working with my PhD students. Helping them do what they want to do, brings me a lot of joy. I also love when they support each other on their projects and together they achieve greatness. That culture of supporting others on their goals is really important to me, and when the students I work with buy into that culture, it’s awesome.

What are you most passionate about?

Changing engineering education. I don’t know what the future of the field is, but it has to constantly evolve and change to keep up with the world. Anything that allows me to try something new gets me really excited. I get very passionate about projects that have tangible change in education.

How have you benefited from being part of a larger community focused on EM?

I have met so many amazing people in KEEN that I don’t think I would have met if I wasn’t involved in this network. Coming from a really large research focused institution, it’s very easy to lose sight of the diverse landscape in engineering education. Through KEEN, I’ve made connections with so many folks at so many schools. Having that diversity of thought related to education has been eye opening and grounding as I do my work as a scholar and educator. I’m grateful to the EM community for welcoming me with open arms.

How have you worked with colleagues on your campus to impact students?

At OSU, we’ve done a lot with EML, and I’ve worked with a lot of folks. Mainly I’ve worked on the assessment side to measure our impact. Helping faculty figure out if their approaches are working has been a great reward and enjoyable. I really looking forward to continuing to help faculty measure their impact.

What would you tell a faculty member who is getting started implementing EM?

Just do it! I think so many faculty first think, oh no not another thing to put in my class. Implementing EML is not that. It’s an approach that complements everything else we do. People need to be open and just try it on. When they do, they will love it and never look back.

What advice would you give students about EM and their careers?

Developing an EM will serve you so well no matter your future career. Being curious will keep you engaged and excited. Making connections will support your wildest ideas and make them possible. Creating value will bring purpose to what you do.

What are you hoping to do with your Rising Star funding?

I am not exactly sure, but I want to use the funding to explore graduate students’ experiences with EM or expand my toy adaptation work. Graduate students are future faculty, and I truly believe we need to invest in their experiences to really change the future of our field. Additionally, I’ve worked with this program that makes battery operated toys more accessible serving a true community need. Maybe there’s some way to bring these projects together. We’ll see!

Students have mentioned that the most impactful section of your dossier isn't the scads of grants you've received, but seeing the grants you did not receive! One student said that it "normalized failure and showed that even with all of the rejection faced in academia there is light and hope which leads to great and amazing work."

What made you first decide to share both wins and losses with your students?

I believe we’re whole people and life happens. Today with social media, it’s really easy to only highlight the good.

"I never want students to be surprised by the bad. We all face it, learn from it, and move on."

Sharing my failures is a way I hope to model getting through the bad so you can get to the good.

Can you give an example or two of when you determined that the best or typical research approaches needed to be put aside in favor of truly creating value for the students?

I believe that students need to be able to take something away from each thing they do in a class. If we’re running a research study and inundating them with surveys and instruments that they fill out and never see again, what are they getting from that? What’s the value to them? Probably nothing. My approach requires critical conversations about research protocol implementation.

For example, maybe we need a pre-survey, and we want the students to do it day 1. That’s ideal and will give us a true baseline. In reality, the students have a million things to do on day 1 including finding their class, meeting their teammates, figuring out if engineering even is for them, etc. Laying a survey on top of that might not be the best for them. It might be better for them to take it in a week or two when they can really think and reflect.

We might not get the best and cleanest data, but in this case, we’ve centered the students and their needs which is most important.

Your work with 3Cs assessments is being piloted in multiple courses. Any early insights to share, or if not, your goals and hopes?

Moving forward our team is looking to create instruments that can be used across the network to specifically measure creating value and connections. These are complex constructs so the work will be challenging, but I think it will be really useful and will yield really interesting results if we can look at data across multiple schools. I’m excited to see what the future holds for our team!