PULLMAN — She is engaging, passionate about her work, and up on the latest professional methods. Rena Mincks is the kind of teacher that parents of six-year-olds dream about—if their dreams are wild enough to include a first-grade instructor with a Ph.D.
Mincks has taught for 22 years, 18 of those in the first grade classroom at Pullman’s Jefferson Elementary School.  In 2005, she earned a doctoral degree in educational assessment at Washington State University so she could better understand what her students were learning. She is back on campus this summer thanks to the Vitt and Mary Ferrucci Distinguished Educator Award in Math, Science and Technology Education.
The WSU College of Education gives the annual award to a teacher who wants to use university resources to work on a project.
 “My main goal is to find math tasks that are motivational for first-graders,” said Mincks. As an example of the need for goal-oriented tasks, she cites a Washington state standard that says children must be able to read numerals to 1,000 or count numbers to 120 by the end of first grade. “But why would they want to do that?”
Before finding the switches that flip on students’ understanding, she needs to figure out what they already know. She is getting help from two WSU faculty members: Jo Clay Olson, assistant professor of mathematics education, and Kimberly Vincent, clinical assistant professor of mathematics. 
“Sometimes students end up thinking that they are not very good at math when in fact they’re just doing it in a way that is hard for the teacher to understand or appreciate,” Olson explained. “Rena wants to help teachers better understand how students think, to design assessments that go beyond whether they got the answers right or wrong.”
Mincks’ four-week sabbatical at WSU is just the start of her project.  This fall, she will try out her refined tests and tasks on her first-graders.  Her methods also will be used by three friends who teach first grade at the Colton, Colfax and Lacrosse.  That’s important because teachers in rural districts are less likely to have anyone else in the classroom who can help them oversee activities. (WSU student teachers and volunteers often help out in Pullman.)
“We need math tasks that can be done with 25 students and one adult,” Mincks said.
Ultimately, Mincks will write a project report that she hopes will lead to other teachers seeing “aha!” moments in the faces of six-year-olds.
“Their entire faces light up and then they want to share that discovery with the rest of the class,” said Mincks. “It is truly a joy to see.”
Mincks is the third recipient of the Ferrucci award, which is funded by a $500,000 endowment established by WSU alumnus Vitt Ferrucci (’44). A veterinarian, former WSU trustee and longtime Puyallup school board member, Dr. Ferrucci died on June 1 at the age of 90.
For more information on the award, visit http://education.wsu.edu/collaboration/ferrucci/