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Teaching student proves devotion to profession with research, engagement

Rachel Manak
May 12, 2015

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If you ask Rachel Manak what her favorite part of teaching is, her eyes light up.

“All of it,” she declares without hesitation.

But, she admits, there is “one specific story that kind of sums it up better than anything else.”

During her junior-year internship as a second-grade student teacher, Manak was helping a child with a learning disability to read. After several attempts, she said, “He finally got it, and he just looked at me, and he’s like, ‘[Gasp!]’ and got so excited, he was crying. It’s just that sense of, ‘OK, you’re helping someone to feel excited about something as simple as reading, but it’s making this huge difference in their life.’”

The senior in elementary education at Arizona State University has proven her devotion to the profession, specifically the area of teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to English language learners, with an impressive portfolio of research projects and community engagement.

She is graduating from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College with her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

“What makes her special is her ongoing involvement in research projects at the undergraduate level,” said Irina Okhremtchouk, assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who has served as a mentor to Manak for the past couple of years.

Manak first caught Okhremtchouk’s attention when she took a bilingual course with her during Manak’s freshmen year at ASU.

“She seemed impressed with the papers I wrote for her course, so she said, ‘I have a colleague, and I would like for you to do a research project with him as an intern,’” Manak recalls.

That colleague was Steve Zuiker, also an assistant professor in the Teachers College. The project was researching something called transformational play, which implements video games in the classroom as an alternative learning tool for students.

“[Zuiker] actually implemented this video game in Singapore that incorporates science content knowledge. So [the student] becomes this little park ranger who has to determine why these fish are dying in this lake,” Manak said.

She assisted in compiling and analyzing the data collected from the students in Singapore to determine the efficacy of transformational play in the classroom. The verdict: It did indeed make a positive difference in helping students understand various concepts and vocabulary.

After Manak completed the project with Zuiker, Okhremtchouk had another research proposition for her; this time, working directly with her and another colleague, George Sellu of the University of California Davis.

The trio surveyed teachers in Arizona to find out how well prepared they feel to teach students who don’t speak English, with a focus on STEM subjects.

What they found “was actually kind of surprising,” Manak said. “We found that methods that have shown to work in theory, teachers haven’t necessarily found to work in their classroom.”

Manak presented those findings, along with Sellu, in the paper “An Analysis of Teacher Readiness to Teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Subjects to English Language Learners: Arizona Context” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago on April 18. She was one of the first undergraduates to attend and present at the meeting, which is the largest international gathering of scholars in the field of education research.

The trio plan to continue their research, this time focusing on teachers in California, and submit their findings to next years’ AERA meeting.

“It's been a great experience learning through Irina and developing the skills needed to research a hot topic in education and to find a significance that could potentially make a difference in how teachers are taught to be teachers,” Manak said.

Manak, who also serves as the vice president of the ASU Geology Club organizing outreach events like the Earth and Space Open House and Camp SESE, is finishing up her student-teaching requirements at Kyrene Del Pueblo Middle School in Chandler.

She already has a job lined up after graduation, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade science at Dietz Elementary in Tucson, a Title 1 school that just recently converted to a K-8 school.

“I’ll be the only science teacher in seventh and eighth grade, so it will be interesting to see what happens but I’m pretty excited,” she said.