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Kent Ratajeski

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2017 Breaking Barriers Award
Disability Resource Center

At the risk of putting you on the spot, what contribution to teaching do you believe led to your award recognition during the 2016-2017 academic school year?
One of my students in EES 220 during the 2017 spring semester had an extreme visual impairment that required some extensive accommodations on my part as an instructor. The student had an accessible textbook, but this only included rudimentary descriptions of the visual component that this text offers. To fill this gap, I developed a variety of tactile aids for conveying some of this rich visual component within the science. With the help of the University’s Disability Resource Center and frequent feedback from the student, the design and implementation of the aids were improved during the course of the semester. Judging from preliminary observations and student feedback, most of the aids, particularly the larger ones, worked well to illustrate the relevant geologic concepts.

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Examples [of the tactile aids] included: tactile diagrams and models made with textured surfaces (sandpaper, felt, corrugated cardboard, Wikki Stix, etc.); lab exercises using modified raised relief topographic maps which I purchased with fund provided by the DRC; a tactile graph made with pushpins and string for graphing flood recurrence data; small clay sculptures illustrating various types of volcanoes and rivers; a tactile graphic using hardware to illustrate the concepts of fossil succession, index fossils, and fossil assemblages in relative dating; models illustrating mineral structures; tactile graphics made with heat-sensitive swell paper; and more. I also purchased a color identifier (again with help from the DRC) which the student used as an aid to identify minerals and rocks.

In your opinion, what are the qualities of a great teacher?
A great teacher is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, fair, clear, kind, firm, courageous, adaptable, and makes personal sacrifices for the betterment of their students.

What do you find most gratifying about teaching?
As a geoscience educator, being able to share my love for God's creation with my students is one of the most gratifying things about my job as a teacher. I have lived in and have visited a number of amazing places in my career in geology, and central Kentucky affords an ideal setting in which to immerse students in the study of Earth history, minerals, rocks, fossils, geologic hazards, mountains, and more. I lead numerous field trips every year, and very much enjoy this aspect of my job as a teacher.

What makes teaching challenging? How do you navigate those challenges?
There are many challenges with teaching, some of which stem from my limitations and failings, and others that arise from societal changes which affect my students' ability and desire to do the work to learn and succeed. Challenges to teaching include: increasing time pressures and pervasive distractions in our modern ultra-connected world (for both teachers and students); the devaluing of personal responsibility in the learning process; sub-standard development of basic math, reading, and writing skills for some of our students; a reluctance on the part of some students to get help when they need it; an over-valuing of stimulus and entertainment at the expense of hard work in the process of learning; the growing necessity for many students to work long hours during their education; and increasing emotional pressures on students stemming from personal and family problems. I'm not sure I have successfully navigated all of these challenges, as many of them are beyond my control. I believe that teachers should make themselves available not only to help students reach their goals (usually defined in a limited way as preparing them for a successful career), but to model and demonstrate a more-enriching way of life that values learning more broadly for its own sake, for the flourishing of the greater society, and for the better stewardship of the physical world in which we live.

What are your interests outside of teaching (i.e., your hobbies)?
Parenting, music (piano and church choir), hiking, and mineral and fossil collecting.

Who inspires you? And why?
Explorers, scientific discoverers, and excellent scientific communicators. Why? My job as an educator is about leading my students into new worlds of learning and discovery. I want them to feel the excitement of learning something new, developing new skills, and gaining confidence in their abilities along the way. I realize that this process of exploration may stretch my students beyond their comfort zones at times, but this is necessary to develop the academic and personal skills necessary for their future success.

What is the best advice you ever received about teaching?
In an academic environment that places tremendous currency on talent, accomplishment, and success, I must constantly remind myself that my identity and self-worth does NOT rest on my failings or accomplishments as a teacher! An important corollary: the academic accomplishments of my students are NOT what make them worthy human beings!

What resources or recommendations would you share with instructors who are seeking to adopt new teaching practices?
If they are in my field of geology, I would point them to the Science Education Resource Center, a massive collection of teaching resources for geoscience educators; earlier in my career, I worked on contributing resources to this collection. For my fellow colleagues at UK, there are a lot of resources to be found right here on campus with helpful workshops and programs specially designed for our faculty at PresentationU, CELT, etc. Fellow faculty are a very important resource of their own. More generally, I would recommend that instructors seeking to adopt new teaching practices not bite off more than they can chew, but instead make incremental changes in their teaching over the longer term. Some educational fads will come and go, some will seem to work well, and some may actually create unforeseen problems. In the end, there is no silver bullet to teaching excellence. A balance must be sought between introducing changes and preserving time-tested traditional practices.

Dr. Kent Ratajeski is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.