Physics professor Richard Zajac, who has served the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus for 20 years, is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Marchbanks Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence. Established more than 30 years ago by the Marchbanks family, the award annually recognizes a Kansas State Polytechnic faculty member’s commitment in the classroom, service to students and overall merit as a teacher.
One of the biggest driving forces behind Zajac’s nomination is his dedicated approach to education – bringing physics to life through fun and relatable hands-on assignments. Zajac serves as both the classroom professor and lab technician on campus, which can be uncommon at other universities. This allows him to create a seamless transition between the two learning spaces, connecting his lecture material with engaging experiments.
“Because I’m a part of every aspect of each lab project – from the design to setup and repair – I can help students identify problems within a project and use that glitch as a guided opportunity,” said Zajac. “This creates a natural learning experience and makes physics real.”
Born in Montréal, Québec, Zajac’s first acquaintance with physics came in secondary school when his family purchased a home computer. Ever the tinkerer, Zajac enjoyed disassembling things and then putting them back together again, which worked out well during a time when technology asked more of the user than it does today.
“Computer programs in this era aren’t something you write; you download them and expect them to work,” said Zajac. “But when I was growing up, if you wanted to program a video game, you had to learn the physics behind it so that you could make the computer do it.”
From that point on, physics became Zajac’s career compass. He received his bachelor’s degree in the field at McGill University in Montréal and decided to continue his education in computational physics. The move from Canada to Kansas came when Kansas State University was the only institution he could find that offered the graduate program he wanted.
Zajac moved to Manhattan, Kansas in 1992 where he became a teaching assistant while researching his doctorate degree. During that time, he also met his wife and the two now have six children: a 19-year-old, 17-year-old triplets and twins that are 15.
In his final year of graduate school at K-State, Zajac discovered an open position in physics at Kansas State Polytechnic. He was excited about the job because a smaller campus meant he could get to know his students and connect with them in all aspects of learning. He was hired in 1996 under the agreement he would complete his doctorate degree, which he did a year later.
Along with providing experiential learning to college students, Zajac enjoys working with the same age group that he was when he first explored physics. For the last five years, he has been a professional mentor to the Salina South Middle School robotics team. He also assists with Science Olympiad every year, which is held on the polytechnic campus, and teaches engineering physics during the summer on the Manhattan campus.
Zajac previously has won another significant Kansas State Polytechnic award – the Rex McArthur Family Faculty Fellow in 2013. He finds the recognition validating and encouraging because that means faculty and students alike acknowledge his teaching methods and ability to inspire in a field that isn’t a core program of the campus.
“A physics degree is not offered on our campus,” said Zajac, “so the fact that I can make students appreciate a course they’re only taking because they have to, that’s gratifying to me.”
Courtesy of Kansas State Polytechnic