Marais earns Murphy Award, Purdue's top undergraduate teaching honor

Professor Karen Marais is only the third AAE professor to win the Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Teacher Award, joining Kathleen Howell (2013-14) and Severino Koh (1966-76).
Marais
Karen Marais 

The raw response was hidden by a mask, but nothing could conceal Karen Marais’ emotions on this day.

Only minutes after starting AAE251 Tuesday afternoon, Marais looked up and saw an unexpected string of visitors enter the classroom in the Mechanical Engineering building. As soon as she saw Madison Shoemaker, a senior in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, leading the way, Marais knew what was up.

She had been chosen to receive Purdue University’s highest undergraduate teaching honor.

Marais' eyes crinkled, indicating a wide smile underneath the mask, and she only just managed to hold back tears.

All she’d done since joining AAE faculty in 2009, the wide range of classes taught, the enthusiasm with which she shared the material, the innovation to adapt courses and develop new ones, the ways she nurtured yet challenged students, the grace and kindness she showed in counsel and in an advisory capacity, it had all led to this moment.

Marais was one of five professors selected to receive the 2021 Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Teaching Award.

She’s only the third AAE professor to win the award, joining Kathleen Howell (2013-14) and Severino Koh (1966-76). The honor, accompanied by a $10,000 cash award and induction into Purdue’s Teaching Academy, is given to an associate or full professor who demonstrates superior ability in communicating material to stimulate students’ desire to master the material and whose teaching responsibility doesn’t stop at the classroom door.

That’s exactly Marais.

“I put an enormous amount of effort into my teaching, and having it be recognized in this public way is really a great feeling,” Marais said about 30 minutes after the surprise interruption. “Students sometimes tell me in person that I’ve meant something to them, but having it in this kind of way, there’s something special about that.”

Marais
Marais

Marais teaches six courses — Sophomore Seminar (200), Introduction to Aerospace Design (251), Junior Seminar (300), Aerospace Design Systems (351), Air Transportation Systems (585), Safety and Reliability Engineering (590). The principal goal in her teaching is to enable students to become lifelong learners, a skill essential to their success, she said. She designs courses to guide students toward cultivating that skill.

At the sophomore level, she instills good study habits throughout frequent but manageable assignments, working to instill a learning and seeking mindset by creating assignments and projects that require students to do their own research.

At all levels, she makes the development of writing and presenting skills a priority. 

“Engineering students are more creative than they know, and I try to nurture that creativity by showing students different ways of thinking and by encouraging them to think beyond the purely technical analysis of problems,” she said.

In an effort to ideally prepare students for industry and fill gaps in AAE’s curriculum, Marais has created and taught one undergraduate and two graduate courses, redeveloped and taught undergraduate sophomore and junior seminar courses, and redeveloped and taught another undergraduate course.

That includes changes to 251, one of the School’s cornerstone courses. Since she began teaching it in 2011, Marais has reformatted the course to provide students with significant exposure to aspects of both aeronautics and astronautics, added a “book report” to improve students’ oral and written communication skills, developed a “What We Learned Today” exercise for the end of each class and revamped the team project to include structured project milestones and provide weekly feedback on each team’s progress.

Marais said 251 is her favorite course to teach. So much so she took it on during the 2020-21 academic year despite already having a three-course teaching load, after the scheduled professor for the course left Purdue.

“It’s very often one of the students’ first aerospace classes, and aerospace students are excited to be in an aerospace class,” said Marais, who has been AAE’s associate head for undergraduate education since January 2018. “There’s just that sense of excitement and we do a lot of fun things in 251. It’s a complex and demanding course, but I think the students learn a lot with a lot of interesting topics.

“I could have said to Professor (William) Crossley, ‘We have to find someone.’ But it didn’t seem to me to be the right thing to do for our students or for our department, so I just went ahead and taught it.”

Marais joked she didn’t know how she survived last semester. Maybe it had something to do with the shared enthusiasm between her and the students.

Though she’d consider herself an introvert, Marais certainly doesn’t come across that way when she steps in a classroom. She has learned over the course of her career that “teaching is acting,” and she puts on her teaching persona to present the best experience in each of her classes, for each of her students.

“I’ve had a couple of days where work has been very stressful where maybe other things happened that were not so pleasant, and then I walk into the classroom and I leave all of that outside,” she said. “Then I do my thing in the classroom and I’m somewhere different for that hour-and-a-quarter or whatever it is. I’ve even had times where I’ve had a splitting headache and I do my teaching thing and somewhere during class, my headache goes away.

“I get to be this extroverted, enthusiastic, energetic person in the room, and it’s fun. I’ll put a lot into it and then at the end of class, I’ll be like, ‘(exhale).’ But it’s been fun.”

Students see that fervor, and it matters.

At least that’s what some said inside ME 1130 Tuesday as, one by one, students raised hands to praise their professor, and in the hallway just outside where Shoemaker and fellow senior Joey Laria offered more admiration after the announcement.

“She genuinely cares, and she wants you to learn,” said Shoemaker, the student representative for Marais and the College of Engineering’s nominees during the award selection process. “She's not just a professor to do her research. She's a professor because she's a teacher at heart.”

Laria, who has taken four courses from Marais in three years, said Marais goes “above and beyond.” It’s not just about engineering, he said, but he has even gone into her office to get papers checked for grammar. She’s recommended him for opportunities, too, and in doing so, empowered him.

That personal touch is a hallmark of Marais’ personality.

“She’s definitely one of my inspirations here at Purdue,” Laria said.

Laria isn’t the last student Marais will impact.

The same passion she’s had for teaching for as long as she can remember — growing up, she always liked explaining things to people and even created lessons for brother Stephan, who is five years younger — will be on display for years to come.

“I care about them as people and want them to succeed. I like working with young people,” said Marais, twice selected by AAE students for teaching awards within the School, earning the Gustafson Award in 2020 and the Elmer F. Bruhn Award in 2014. “I was just talking to a student last week, and he asked me about my job. I said, ‘This is what I want to do. Being a professor, that’s my job.’ It took me a while to find it. I did many other things, but this is the thing I want to do. I’m not looking for another job.

“I found it, and it’s perfect for me.”