By Maegan Murray

An immersive experience at Washington State University Tri-Cities has Amy Verderber, a biology teacher at Kamiakin High School, performing research that has tie-ins to medicine.

Verderber studied biology in college before certifying to become a teacher, but she never got the opportunity to explore the field’s full research potential. Within the last two summers through the Partners in Science program, however, Verderber found herself working directly beside university biology faculty, completing research that has potential to improve what is known about human skull deformities and diseases.

Amy Verderber

Amy Verderber, a teacher at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, Wash., got the opportunity to complete biological sciences research at Washington State University Tri-Cities through the Partners in Science program.

Through the Partners in Science program, which is supported by a $15,000 grant from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, high school teachers are paired with a university professor in their field and the pair spends two consecutive summers completing research. During the end of each summer experience, the teachers prepare a presentation on their research and how they plan to implement what they learn into their classroom setting. The university professors also get the value of an additional hand in the lab and in the high school teacher’s second summer, an experienced lab researcher to help with their studies.

Verderber is working with Jim Cooper, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Elly Sweet, clinical assistant professor of biology, in researching the impact of thyroid hormone on the development of jaw shape and jaw biomechanics in the zebrafish. The researchers hope their research will shed light on how the abnormal thyroid hormone levels during development can lead to human skull deformities.

Verderber continues to use the experience to provide her students with real-world opportunities and outlooks in science. She has applied what she’s learned to her lessons and often brings discussion of her experience into her labs and instruction.

Elly Sweet (left) talks with Amy Verderber about their research on the thyroid hormone in zebrafish.

WSU Tri-Cities professor Elly Sweet (left) talks with Amy Verderber about their research on the thyroid hormone in zebrafish.

“It’s been a great experience,” Verderber said. “To my students, it is more than just reading out of a textbook. I’m able to bring what is happening all around them into a practical classroom experience. It provides them with a look into the lab setting. I am not just a teacher who went to school and studied the subject. I now can say I’ve worked in a real lab and am doing scientific research with real-world applications.”

Throughout the two summers, Verderber recorded zebrafish feeding mechanics using a high-speed video camera, determined the effects of both an overabundance and a deficiency of thyroid hormone on jaw mechanics and performed research on the genetic controls of fish skull development.

“We’re trying to identify how thyroid hormone activates or deactivate genes in the fish’s head to determine whether they develop really moveable or jaws or jaws capable of only limited motion,” Cooper said. “There are also a large number of human birth defects associated with abnormal thyroid hormone production that causes malformation of the skull. The research can therefore answer both evolutionary questions and medical questions.”

Verderber said her students were very receptive to both what she learned in the lab, as well as what she brought in to the classroom through her teaching. She said she hopes to raise zebrafish in her classroom this year so the students receive that additional hands-on, real-world application.

WSU Tri-Cities professor Jim Cooper (left) chats with Amy Verderber about their research on the impact on varying amounts of thyroid hormone in zebrafish

WSU Tri-Cities professor Jim Cooper (left) chats with Amy Verderber about their research on the impact on varying amounts of thyroid hormone in zebrafish. The research could lead to advancements in medicine.

“My students are learning something outside of a textbook,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding seeing not only how I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned for their benefit, but in seeing how they’ve reacted to that material.”

Sweet said she is excited about how Verderber’s experience in the WSU Tri-Cities lab will open the eyes of students to the possibilities of careers in the biological sciences, as well as project upward what high school students are learning today.

“Not only will it help with the research aspect of things, it will also be helpful to know what students are currently learning about in high school, be able to have some input into the possibilities of projects they could work on, as well as have the opportunity for us to come into the high school classrooms to give presentations,” she said. “Even though many students majoring in the biological sciences are interested in pre-health, there are many other career options out there. This provides a great partnership on that end.”

Included in the Partners in Science program is the option of applying for a supplemental grant, of which the funds go toward classroom equipment like microscopes, pipettes and other supplies. Verderber said she plans on applying and that it will provide a great resource for her students if she receives the grant.

“I hope other professors see the value of this program and the many benefits that come out of it,” she said.

Cooper and Sweet agreed.

“The amount of time that we have invested in collaborating with Amy we have gotten back many times,” Cooper said. “It’s a gain in resources and a huge win for both the lab at the university.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

wsu tri-cities student union building RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University Tri-Cities invites members of the public to join the grand opening celebration of its $5.73 million campus student union building, 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14.

The event will feature a presentation by WSU President Kirk Schulz, WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Keith Moo-Young, student representatives and other distinguished guest speakers. Attendees also will have the opportunity to tour the building at their leisure.

“Our students now have a full facility of their own to study, hang out and meet with other students,” said Chris Meiers, vice chancellor of enrollment management and student services. “The students voted in the spring of 2014 to approve a fee on themselves to fund the building, and the idea grew from there.

“This is the first building on our campus solely designed around the student experience. We’re excited to officially open it up to our students and the public.”

Features include a multipurpose event space, new furniture, a gathering space.
Features include a multipurpose event space, new furniture, a gathering space.

The 9,951 square-foot building features a 2,437 square-foot multipurpose event space, new furniture, a gathering space, coffee bar, interactive TV monitors throughout the building and offices for the Associated Students of WSU Tri-Cities and the office of student life.

ASWSUTC President Israa Alshaikhli said she is excited to see an entirely student-centered space come to fruition at the benefit of her peers.

“The student union building project took five years of students’ work, dedication and commitment,” she said. “A lot of students were part of this process, and it is very empowering to see it completed now. It is literally by the students, for the students.”

Tyler Schrag, chair of the student union building governance board and former ASWSUTC vice president, said even before he came to WSU Tri-Cities as a freshman, there were a variety of individuals who brought much to the table for the building.

“The dedication shown by my fellow Cougs says a lot about the passion of those on our campus,” he said. “I hope for this building to be another huge step toward a bigger and better campus for all students to call home.”

Public invited to the grand opening celebration 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14.
Public invited to the grand opening celebration 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14.

To show Cougar spirit and leave a permanent mark on the building, individuals may also sign up to participate in the WSU Tri-Cities “Buy a Brick” program, where individuals and companies can designate their name, organization or insignia on a brick, bench or patio planter on or around the building.

Through the “Buy a Brick” program, participants may purchase:
• A 4×8-inch red brick with black block lettering – $100
• An 8×8-inch gray brick with black block lettering – $250
• A wood and iron rail bench with nameplate – $1,000
• A patio planter with nameplate – $1,000
• An array of bricks can be ordered with a minimum of $1,000

For more information on the WSU Tri-Cities Buy a Brick program and to reserve a brick or other items, visit or call 509-372-7264.


Media Contact:

By Christina VerHeul, Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine

Elson S. Floyd_College_of_Medicine logoSPOKANE, Wash. – A new profile of the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine charter class shows it is comprised of a strong percentage of women, low socioeconomic status and first generation students.

The class, a group of 60 students who are current residents of or have significant ties to Washington, represent a population of talented students who would otherwise have been forced to go out of state for their medical educations.

2017 Elson S Floyd College of Medicine class photo.
WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine 2017 charter class.

Selected from more than 700 applications that were submitted in just 27 days – the timeframe between receipt of preliminary accreditation and the application submission deadline – competition was stiff for the coveted spots.

“Our recruitment cycle for this first class was extremely truncated,” said Dr. John Tomkowiak, founding dean of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “While most schools began recruiting in the summer, we couldn’t begin recruitment until November 2016. Despite the challenge, the fact that we received more than 700 applications in less than a month only highlights the pent-up need for medical education in this state.”

The college focused on drawing students from a wide cross-section of rural and urban underserved areas across the state to increase the likelihood they will return to their communities to practice medicine. It then selected students from 15 of the state’s 39 counties, with 15 percent of the class hailing from rural communities.

The college exceeded national averages for admission of females and average age, and had great success recruiting first-generation college graduates, as well as students with low socioeconomic status.

“We are proud of the highly accomplished group of students we selected for this charter class,” said Tomkowiak. “As we continue to grow in awareness and reputation, as well as build our recruitment efforts across the state, we anticipate the applicant pool and matriculated classes will continue to impress.”

Below is a profile of the charter class:


  • Females: 34 (56.7%)
  • Legal Washington residents: 57 (95%) *The 5% nonlegal Washington residents must demonstrate they are from Washington by meeting at least 3 of the 4 requirements: born in Washington, childhood address in Washington, graduated from a Washington high school, parent/guardian currently lives in Washington.
  • Childhood in a rural Washington county: 9 (15%) *Based on Office of Financial Management data.
  • Childhood in a medically underserved Washington county: 58 (96.7%) *Based on the area health resources files from Health Resources & Services Administration.
  • Washington counties represented: 15, including Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Franklin, Grant, King, Pacific, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, Stevens, Thurston, Whatcom, Whitman, Yakima.
  • First-generation college graduate*: 11 (18.3%) *bachelor’s degree
  • Low socioeconomic status*: 20 (33.3%) *Based on AMCAS EO1 or EO2
  • Average age: 26 / range 21-36
  • Advanced degrees: 7 (11.7%)


  • Total AMCAS applications: 711
  • Total secondary applications sent: 501
  • Total completed applications: 466
  • Total interviewed: 332
  • Matriculated class: 60

For more information, visit

Media Contact

  • Christina VerHeul, director of communications and marketing, Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, 509-368-6850,

By Maegan Murray

After a successful first year, Washington State University Tri-Cities will grow its offerings for professional development training, expanding to offer opportunities for individuals state-wide in leadership, project management, executive communication, professional engineering and more.

Instructor Semi Bird leads leadership class at WSU Tri-Cities

Semi Bird, senior instructor for WSU Tri-Cities’ professional development and community education, leads a leadership course at WSU Tri-Cities. The program is now expanding its course offerings to be open to individuals and companies state- and nation-wide after a successful first year.

“We started out with our Leadership in the 21st Century course last September, and the feedback from our professional students was so significant and so overwhelmingly positive that it inspired us to broaden our course delivery,” said Semi Bird, associate director and senior instructor for WSU Tri-Cities’ professional development and community engagement.

Bird said unlike many traditional leadership and professional development courses, the trainings offered through WSU Tri-Cities are all in-person and incorporate real-world experiences. The curriculum is based in individual participant experiences in the workplace and delivers dynamic discussion and role-play on how to handle difficult conversations and other situations. Participants also develop a common bond through shared personal experiences in the work place, all of which are broken down and discussed in the trainings.

“Students leave understanding that they are not alone and they leave better prepared with tools to grow their productivity and satisfaction in the workplace,” Bird said. “We’ve seen people return time and again for our different courses because they’re getting something out of the experience that they can use immediately in their work environment and role within their organization.”

Renowned leader teaching the courses

Bird is a demonstrated leader. His previous professional experience ranges from his leadership in the U.S. Army Special Forces as a Green Beret, where he earned the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, to his role as the senior advisor to the United States ambassador of Bangladesh, to his proven track record of success as an entrepreneur in private business.

Bird said he was inspired to enter into the sector of professional development because he wanted to share his career knowledge as a leader with others so that they can grow and thrive within their respective organization. The return, he said, is that the individual’s employer wins, because their employees not only have the skills to be successful, but also the skills to better interact with their fellow employees.

Instructor Semi Bird talks with participants in a leadership course at WSU Tri-Cities

Semi Bird, senior instructor for WSU Tri-Cities’ professional development and community education, presents during a leadership course at WSU Tri-Cities.

Becky Chamberlain, WSU Tri-Cities director of continuing education, said Bird has a gift as an instructor and mentor.

“He teaches from experiences and delivers his curriculum with great passion,” she said. “I have been told by so many of our students that our Leadership Academy training is the best training they have experienced. Our students always take away calls to action using the skills and tools they received in our workshop.”

One student from CH2M stated that their favorite part of the training was “the open, free dialogue and trainer’s enthusiasm for the subject matter.” Another student from Mission Support Alliance said, “The dialogue with Semi and the other participants was invaluable. This allowed for a conversation, as opposed to a presentation format.”

Diversity in thought

Bird said students in the courses come from a wide-variety of industries where they gain from one another’s similar and dissimilar experiences, all within the same session.

“We are training employees of federal agencies, law enforcement agencies, banks, contractors, engineers, scientists and project managers,” he said. “This allows us to have highly-impactful discussions and engagement across disciplines.”

Participants in a leadership course at WSU Tri-Cities

Students in a WSU Tri-Cities leadership course present their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) at the end of their experience. Participants come from a range of positions, experience levels and organizations to participate in the courses.

The WSU Tri-Cities courses are offered to individuals from all experience levels, from entry-level employees to executives. Throughout the last year, WSU Tri-Cities grew its program to offer a variety of courses geared toward maximizing employee success, growing team efficiency and effectiveness, leadership preparation for aspiring leaders, as well as maximizing leadership dexterity for executive management.

WSU Tri-Cities has partnered and contracted with a range of regional and national corporations, some of which include the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington River Protection Solutions, regional Native American tribes, Mission Support Alliance, CH2M, Gesa Credit Union, the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce and Gear Up.

Expanding leadership training to meet state and national needs

This year, with the influx in courses offered, WSU Tri-Cities also aims to expand its offerings to individuals and organizations across the state and nation.

“Our training is real,” Bird said. “You can learn what you want in a book, but this is practical, tested, real-world training that has a proven track record for success within any organization.”

“You come through one of our courses and you go back to your workplace and see real results,” Bird said. “Right now, the feedback we’re getting from our students, who are leaders, themselves, is that they want to put their employees through the same or similar trainings. We are answering that call and need in our community and we want to grow the program to meet the need across the state and beyond.”

For more information on the courses offered through WSU Tri-Cities’ professional development and community education program and to sign up for a course, visit or contact the office at or 509-372-7174.

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Washington State University is leading the online implementation of a program aimed at reducing school truancy that could positively impact schools not only across the state, but also across the nation.

WARNS logoThe Washington Assessment of the Risks and Needs of Students program, also known as WARNS, uses data-driven procedures to track and improve interventions with students. As indicated in the Becca Bill, which requires children from the age of 8 to 17 to attend a public, private or home-based school, unexcused absences may be an early warning sign for unaddressed problems with school failure and dropout rates.

Paul Strand, WSU Tri-Cities professor of psychology, Nick Lovrich, WSU Regents professor emeritus, Brian French, professor and director of WSU’s Learning and Performance Research Center and Psychometric Laboratory, and Bruce Austin, research associate in educational psychology and the LPRC, have worked since 2014 to evaluate and refine the Washington Assessment of the Risks and Needs of Students program, also known as WARNS.

WSU psychology professor Paul Strand

WSU psychology professor Paul Strand

The program was developed in 2008 to assess students on a scale of six needs that have been linked to truancy, delinquency and/or dropping out of school: aggression-defiance, depression-anxiety, substance abuse, peer deviance, family environment and school engagement. Within the program, schools can use the data to develop and implement a plan for at-risk students through school community truancy boards to help prevent and/or correct student behavior.

WSU’s recent evaluation of the program supports using the WARNS as a global screening assessment of risks and needs, citing its reliability and validity. The evaluation was published in SAGE Publications this spring.

“A critical component to the use of scores for decisions about youth is building this line of evidence,” French said.

When children stop going to school, Strand said it can have a substantial effect on their attitude and success in school.

“What happens is kids fell behind in their credit accumulation and when they get to be a sophomore or junior, it starts to feel like a lost cause,” he said. “We want to try to identify truancy problems as early as possible because the less days that kids go to school, the less well they do. It is true that kids that go to school regularly may still struggle, but they struggle less than kids that don’t go.”

WARNS program now available online to schools

WSU’s Learning and Performance Research Center houses the online implementation of the assessment, which is offered to individual high schools and middle schools for $275 per year plus a $1 charge for each student assessed. Districts can also sign up for a subscription for $500 for both middle school and high school WARNS plus a $1 charge for each student assessed. The costs of the program are to ensure the technical integrity and continued development of the assessments.

Strand said he and his colleagues are excited to be in the stage of online implementation because the resource is invaluable for schools across the state.

School buses

Photo of school buses, courtesy of Alex Starr on Flickr

“We are in a position now where schools can use this,” he said. “We want to get the word out about how to use this system. We think the cost is minimal compared to the benefit that both schools and students could experience.

For more information on the assessment, including how to get started using WARNS, visit

The WSU researchers are also developing programs for elementary schools, as signs of delinquent behavior can begin at early as fifth-grade, Strand said.

“Where truancy really begins to show a problem is about seventh-grade, but even in the fifth- and sixth-grade, you can start to predict who the kids are who will have problems,” he said.

The team’s research for the WARNS program was supported by $150,000 and $98,000 grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a $21,400 grant from the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, a $25,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Priority Spokane and a high-risk, high-reward grant from the WSU College of Education.

“These funds help support the development of the Platform for Supporting Successful Outcomes, on which WARNS resides,” French said.

Use across the state and nation

Currently, approximately 80 schools across the state are using the platform, in addition to a school district in the state of Georgia. Schools in California, Ohio and Connecticut have also expressed interest, Strand said.

“Schools in Spokane County, for example, experienced increased graduation rates, of those that were using it,” Strand said. “Now, we’re working with a group that is part of WSU’s Learning and Performance Research Center to put the whole program into an online platform, with the help of WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center. Students can take the assessment and get immediate feedback. We’re also making it very affordable so schools have the means to access this resource.”

RICHLAND, Wash. – Five local freshman at Washington State University Tri-Cities are among the university’s latest class of STEM Scholars.

As part of earning the distinction, where STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the students are honored with a $8,400 per year scholarship and will join the university’s STEM Learning Community. The community consists of a cohort of students that pursue a range of extracurricular opportunities and activities in the STEM fields.

WSU Tri-Cities STEM Scholars – (from left) Louis Theriault, Aaron Engebretson, Jared Johnson, Destiny Ledesma and Diamond Madden

The students awarded include:

  • Aaron Engebretson – Liberty Christian High School
  • Jared Johnson – Richland High School
  • Destiny Ledesma – Hanford High School
  • Diamond Madden – Southridge High School
  • Louis Theriault – Mid-Columbia Partnership

In order to be eligible for the program, students must have a minimum high school grade-point average of 3.75 based on a 4.0-scale, officially pursue a STEM-based major available at WSU Tri-Cities, be enrolled as a full-time student at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as actively participate in STEM Learning Community activities offered through the campus. Undergraduate majors eligible include: civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, environmental sciences, general biological science, general mathematics and general physical sciences.

“The students selected display an incredible work-ethic and strong potential for careers in the STEM fields,” WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Keith Moo-Young said. “We’re excited to offer them a variety of resources to propel them into their respective STEM majors, which will encourage them to lead their fellow students within those majors, pursue prominent research at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as inspire future students to follow in their footsteps.”

Kate McAteer, WSU Tri-Cities assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs, said the research component of the experience will provide the students with a solid foundation for their academic futures.

“These STEM Scholars have the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research right from the beginning of their academic careers,” she said. “It provides them with an early start on building a solid foundation of skills required to be successful scientists and engineers.”

Aaron Engebretson

Aaron Engebretson


Engebretson plans to major in engineering. In high school, he served as class president during his senior year and was his class valedictorian. He was a member of Key Club where he served as the vice president of the club. He received the Northwest Nazarene Bridge Academy Scholar Award for taking 15 or more college credits while in high school and maintaining a 3.5 or higher GPA. He also received the Essence of Liberty Scholarship from Liberty Christian School. He hopes to one-day join Engineers Without Borders, which works with developing countries to find solutions for water supply, sanitation, agriculture and civil works. He also hopes to explore research in nuclear science while attending WSU Tri-Cities.

“The STEM Scholars program is very important to me,” he said. “It will surround me with fellow students that are driven, intelligent and interested in STEM … STEM careers are on the forefront of modern-day advancements and research. From the future of cars, to the future of modern medicine, STEM Careers provide solutions to a variety of different problems and challenges.”


Jared Johnson

Jared Johnson

Johnson plans to major in electrical engineering. He is currently finishing his associate’s degree through Columbia Basin College’s running start program where he continues to receive high honors and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. At Richland High School, he earned Summa Cum Laude. Additionally, Johnson gives back to the community through his role with the National Honor Society, as well as helping with Second Harvest food distribution, tutoring high school math and assisting with various elementary school functions. He said he is looking forward to exploring the variety of research opportunities at WSU Tri-Cities.

“With a STEM education, there will be many job opportunities and career advancements,” he said. “STEM subjects have always been interesting to me in school. WSU Tri-Cities provides a wonderful university experience, while still having small classrooms for personalized education. WSU Tri-Cities is also a high-ranking STEM university.”

Destiny Ledesma

Destiny Ledesma


Ledesma plans to major in biology. In high school, she participated in the running start program at WSU Tri-Cities, in addition to serving as her class senator during her junior and senior years. It is with that role that she and her fellow peers brought back the “Every 15 Minutes Program,” a two-day event that sheds light on drinking and driving. Ledesma also gives back to the community by volunteering every year with the Tri-Cities Union Gospel Mission where she makes dinner boxes for the homeless with her family. She also volunteers at the Tri-Cities Water Follies, where she has served in various roles throughout the last few years. She hopes to attend medical school and pursue either a career as a reconstructive surgeon or dermatologist. She looks forward to pursuing research opportunities at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as getting involved with campus student government.

“It’s been such an honor and a blessing to have been able to receive such a prestigious scholarship,” she said. “I have been truly blessed with this opportunity to further my education … It will help prepare me to take on professional life after college and into the workforce. This program has truly changed my life.”


Diamond Madden

Diamond Madden

Madden plans to major in the physical sciences, with possibly an emphasis in chemistry. She earned 38 credits from Central Washington University’s running start program while she played softball, basketball and track and field for Southridge High School. Additionally, she played cello, violin and piano with the school’s orchestra, served in the school debate club, worked part-time for Tropical Sno and participated in the school’s Ignite program, which helps incoming freshmen transition to high school. She also volunteers occasionally with a local food bank. She hopes to pursue a career as a research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which has been a dream of hers for years.

“Words can’t even describe how much the STEM Scholars program means to me and my family,” she said. “Being the second youngest of seven children in a single-income family, this gives me the assurance that I can continue and complete my education for a degree in the sciences … I believe WSU is a remarkable college, with Tri-Cities being the perfect location for me and given the fact that the university partners with PNNL.”

Louis Theriault

Louis Theriault


Theriault plans to major in civil engineering. In high school, as a home-schooled student, he participated in the WSU Tri-Cities running start program, which is what helped him decide on attending WSU Tri-Cities for his undergraduate degree. Over the years, he volunteered to help the Academy of Children’s theater put on its summer camps, helped at his home school program’s “Camp Invention” and continues to serve as a camp counselor for numerous camps, including for the upcoming STEM Camps at WSU Tri-Cities this July. He hopes to participate in WSU’s engineering study abroad opportunity at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences while earning his undergraduate degree at WSU Tri-Cities. After graduation, he hopes to serve as a civil engineer, working possibly around the United States or for an international engineering firm.

“The STEM Scholars Award means the world to me,” he said. “I didn’t believe that I would be one of the chosen people when I signed up. It is going to help me pay for almost all of my college and help me save money for my future … I want to pursue a career in the STEM fields because I want to be able to make a difference in the world.”

By Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. – Jonah Firestone, an education professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities, knows that technology is the future of education, which is why he is researching the use of virtual and augmented reality as tools for not only the general classroom, but specifically with special education in the kindergarten through 12th-grade setting.

Virtual reality in the classroom

A student tries out a virtual reality headset as part of research being completed by Jonah Firestone, a professor of education at WSU Tri-Cities. Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“With regular video games, you’re looking at a flat screen,” he said. “But with virtual reality, you wear a head set and you can look all around. It’s a 360-degree view up and down and you can see this complete world around you. As kids get more used to using this type of technology and as the price goes down, schools are going to start adopting these because you can now send an entire classroom on a field trip to The Louvre without leaving the classroom.”

Firestone said for subjects like science and history, teachers rely on textbook and stationary images to give students a picture of what they’re talking about as it is expensive to take students to laboratories and settings that are referenced in those lessons. With virtual and augmented reality, however, teachers can bring those settings and projects to the students in the virtual sphere.

“We can use this technology to put children and adults into complete virtual worlds where they can be a cell in the human body, or students can do experiments in physics and chemistry that they couldn’t normally safely do in the classroom setting,” he said. “You can then repeat those over and over again.”

Overcoming learning disabilities

Firestone said virtual and augmented reality have different purposes, but both can be applied as additional tools in the classroom, which could help students who struggle with traditional learning methods.

“We used to talk about this thing called learning theories where certain people were characterized as different types of learners, but that’s not really true,” he said. “We all learn in a variety of different ways. But with the more modes in which we learn, whether it be oral, visual or tactile, the more we’re readily going to learn.”

Virtual reality controllers

Controllers for the HTC Vive virtual reality technology.

Some students may have problems processing information that is given to them orally, or students may have visual disabilities where they have difficulty processing static information like documents with lots of text, he said. Students also may have issues holding their attention for an extended period of time.

“So what virtual and augmented reality do is reinforce learning in ways that helps from a variety of different vectors,” he said. “And realistically, strategies used in special education are good practices for any education setting. We can translate what we learn about these tools into the general classroom setting, as well.”

With virtual reality, students wear a head set where it provides them with a complete 360-degree view of a setting or project that the students can interact with. With augmented reality, students use a device like a tablet or a headset where the device projects an image into the real-world setting. Firestone said a good example of augmented reality is Pokemon Go, where the image of a Pokemon is projected through a screen into the real world.

“We’ve all taken classes where we’ve aced the class, but we have no idea what we’ve learned,” he said. “What we want to accomplish with virtual and augmented reality is a more organic method of learning. This organic method of learning is accomplished through learning by doing.”

Research results so far

Firestone worked with Don McMahon on the WSU Pullman campus to run a study with special education students at the college level who studied bones and skeletons using augmented reality with the help of iPad Minis. They compared what the students learned and absorbed with augmented reality to what they learned and observed from textbooks and the team got great results.

Firestone is now taking that research a step further by applying the same tools to kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms.

Students test out virtual reality

A group of students test out virtual reality headsets. WSU Tri-Cities professor Jonah Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“College kids are great, but I am very much interested in how these technologies can be applied to the k-12 setting,” he said. “What we’re currently doing is taking this same process and we’re modifying it for fifth-graders. Then, we’re going to modify it for middle school and high school.”

Firestone said he is using augmented reality to supplement different school lessons, including science where students observe and learn about the human body.

“Imagine looking at a picture of a femur, but with augmented reality, not only do you see a picture of a femur, but it has a voice that defines it for you and then shows you where it is on the human body,” he said.

Firestone is also looking into using virtual reality to immerse the kindergarten through 12th-grade students in an underwater experience called “The Blue.”

“It’s an underwater application where you see whales and you’re in a reef,” he said. “I’m then comparing that to the same information that the students glean from a text.”

Firestone said he’s had great results with the technology so far and that blending the virtual experiences with what students are presented with in a textbook is a winning combination.

“There is no one magic solution for learning, but the more things we can put together, the more kids are going to end up learning,” he said.

RICHLAND, Wash. – David Isley, a recent Washington State University Tri-Cities alumnus (education, ‘17), received a rare opportunity in his beginnings as a teacher this year — the opportunity to student teach with his own first-grade teacher.

Janelle Rehberg (right) and David Isley

Janelle Rehberg (right) and David Isley

At WSU Tri-Cities, students are required to complete a number of volunteer hours in a classroom setting before being admitted into the undergraduate education degree program. Isley decided to seek out his own first-grade teacher, Janelle Rehberg, to complete his volunteer work at Cottonwood Elementary School. After the experience, Rehberg invited Isley to complete his student teaching in her classroom during his senior year at WSU Tri-Cities.

“We hit it off right away, although it did take him a long time to get him to call me Janelle, instead of Mrs. Rehberg,” she said with a laugh. “David is a natural in the classroom. He’s great with the kids and it’s obvious that he loves teaching.”

Rehberg said she has never heard of another teacher and former student working together years later as a mentor and mentee in student teaching.

“It really is rare, but that made it all the more special,” she said.

From student to teacher

As a first-grade student, Rehberg said she never imagined Isley would become a teacher. Isley was an outgoing, passionate young student who had a passion for science and dinosaurs, she said.

“I would have thought he’d go on to be a scientist,” she said.

Isley said even to this day, he still thinks dinosaurs are the greatest, but instead of studying their history as a career, he plans on using them to educate a new generation of students.

“I’m excited to introduce them to my own students,” he said. “I do plan to feature dinosaurs in some of my lessons.”

Since his own days as first-grade student, Isley said the grade level has seen a lot of changes. For one, technology has advanced rapidly, and students use iPads, advanced computers and more to complete their work, innovate and create, he said. Rehberg said students are also expected to know a lot more.

“When I was in the first-grade, we learned the alphabet,” Rehberg said. “Now, that is usually learned in Preschool before they get to kindergarten. From the public’s point of view, I’m not sure people realize the amazing achievements of young little kids these days. Every generation seems to move along more rapidly than the previous one. The reading performance of today’s first graders is impressive.”

Isley said he’s up to the challenge for educating the talented youngsters.

“I’m excited to jump in and work with these amazing kids,” he said. “One of the best things I’ve learned from Janelle is that you have to know your kids and meet them where they are. That’s something I plan to use in my own career as a teacher. That, and you have to make learning fun.”

Foundational learning for use in the real-world

Isley said he appreciates that WSU Tri-Cities requires so much real-world work in the classroom, as that’s the business that teachers are in – working with children and inspiring in them a passion for knowledge.

“Being able to apply what I’ve learned through my professors and textbooks at WSU to the real-world setting in the elementary school classrooms is invaluable,” he said. Rehberg agreed.

“You don’t learn nearly as much as when you are right here in the trenches,” she said. “That first-hand experience is the best.”

Looking toward the future, Isley said he plans to take what he learned through both his coursework and professors at WSU Tri-Cities, and what he learned from Rehberg, to educate a whole new generation of students.

Isley recently accepted a kindergarten teaching position at Washington Elementary School in the Kennewick School District. He’ll also have a piece of Rehberg in his future classroom to remember his student teaching experience with his first-grade teacher, mentor and now colleague. Rehberg said she made a giant sculpted dinosaur for a class project and plans to give it to David to hang in his future classroom.

“It really has all come full-circle,” Isley said.

Rehberg said she’ll miss Isley teaching alongside in her classroom, but that she’s excited for his future.

“Since I had David in my classroom, I’ve missed him terribly,” she said. “I loved having David student teach in my class. But I know he’ll be successful wherever he goes.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

It may be two years before Washington State University Tri-Cities has Elson S. Floyd Medical School students based on its campus, but Farion Williams, the new associate dean of medicine for the Tri-Cities campus, is already ramping up for the students who will study in the mid-Columbia region for their final two years of the WSU medical program.

“The Tri-Cities is in a very unique position in Washington state, with its variety of health care providers and professionals, its opportunities with organizations like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and its potential for providing rural healthcare in eastern Washington and underrepresented communities,” Williams said. “I’m excited to be a part of getting the new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine up and running, and I’m excited to join the team at WSU Tri-Cities.”

Farion Williams - WSU Tri-Cities associate medical dean

Farion Williams – WSU Tri-Cities associate medical dean

Williams, who begins his new role on June 26, plans to spend his first weeks on the job identifying and training faculty and helping to establish the curriculum, as well as meeting with local physicians and representatives from different medical providers to gain an understanding of the health care climate in the region.

“The Tri-Cities is a new community for me, so I look forward to meeting with the physicians and medical providers and understanding the different hospitals in the community,” he said.

A graduate of the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Williams completed his residency training at the University of Kansas Medical Center where he served as the program’s chief resident in his final year. He began his first practice through the University of Texas Medical Branch in Dickinson, Texas. Following his time at UTMB, he became the associate residency director for family medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, and most recently served at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, where he held many roles – including residency program director and assistant dean for graduate medical education.

Williams’ medical resume includes extensive experience serving and developing programs for rural and underserved populations – a focus he looks forward to continuing at WSU.

“The mission of Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is really important because there are many communities that lack resources for health care, and when their access is limited, their care is limited,” he said. “Once students have opportunities to train in rural communities, they are more likely to want to practice in rural communities, which is why it’s crucial that we establish those opportunities here in Washington state. I think it is very forward-thinking that WSU is focusing their program to help address this issue.”

In addition to his work stateside, Williams hopes to offer a study abroad opportunity that he has been a part of for several years at the University of Illinois. Through the program, medical students travel to Christian Medical College in India where they provide medical care, work with the local physicians and learn about how the health care system works within the country.

“The study abroad program gives students an opportunity to experience the healthcare systems in another country, how health care is delivered, how different national policies affect the way healthcare is delivered, and how the populations are different,” he said. “Students see that a lot of good can be done with limited resources and develop a perspective of compassion and empathy for people.”

Williams worked with the department of family medicine faculty at the medical college in India to help them gain accreditation for their residency program through the Medical Council of India in March 2017.

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

The United States power grid is connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to provide electricity to more than 300 million people. But as the saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Yousu Chen – PNNL

With the increase of renewable energy sources, the growth of the increasingly complex system and increases in terrorist threats, engineers have to come up with new methods to protect the power grid.

Yousu Chen (WSU Tri-Cities MS, environmental engineering), staff research engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is using high-performance computing techniques to safeguard the electrical grid against potential threats and outages.

“The power grid is the largest man-made machine in the world,” he said. “It is the most important infrastructure, and we need it daily for almost all of our daily activities. I’m always eager to know what I can do in this fast-growing area to solve new problems.”

During his time as a student at WSU Tri-Cities, Chen got his first internship at PNNL. He also learned skills in simulation and modeling that have proven invaluable to his career.

He has been involved in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, increasing opportunities for current students.

Solving problems before they happen

Chen‘s work focuses primarily on modern computing techniques that both simulate potential hazards and provide ways for monitoring information within the grid. Through the advancement of high-performing computing techniques, he and his team at PNNL are developing simulations to predict and combat problems before they occur.

Chen’s computing systems utilize complex algorithms to measure power flow, identify potential problem areas, simulate possible outcomes if there were to be an outage or a catastrophic event, as well as provide solutions in how to deal with those potential problem areas.Power pole

“For example, if we want to evaluate the impact of newer smart grid technologies on the power grid, we use our simulation techniques to prepare for the event before we apply those new technologies to the grid,” he said. “Using our simulation, we could determine how that issue would impact the grid, and as a result, how we can prevent that from occurring.”

Chen said he and his team are always developing newer computing techniques to run simulations at a faster rate, which will be crucial in the event of a major outage or disruption.

“Some systems will take minutes, depending on the system, to run a limited number of contingencies,” he said. “My code is able to run 1 million contingencies in less than 30 seconds. That is a major achievement.”

With all of the data generated through advanced computing methods, Chen and his team are also always looking take the massive data caches and efficiently turn them into something usable and visual.

“Because high-performance computing systems can create a lot of data, it is challenging to digest that data in the short-term,” he said. “We develop advanced visualization tools, which allow us to view that data in real time and provide a quick response for potential events.”

Giving back to the future of engineering

Even though Chen has achieved much in his career as an engineer, he has used his position to increase opportunities for disseminating knowledge of his field into the community, as well as create pathways for other students to follow in his footsteps.

Chen realized early in his higher education career just how valuable mentorship and extracurricular learning experiences could be to his own growth as an engineer. In addition to utilizing university resources to connect him with an internship at PNNL, he also sought advice for how to improve his resume, his interview skills and more through the university’s career development center. After landing a full-time position of his own at PNNL, he wanted to keep paying forward what he learned, using his connections in engineering and computer science to provide resources and mentoring to aspiring engineering students.

Chen has since volunteered his time through a variety of capacities for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He serves as chair for the IEEE’s distinguished lecture program and formerly served as the regional representative of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and the regional chair for the IEEE Power Energy Society’s scholarship plus program. He also serves as the editor for two professional journals where he helps edit and review articles for publication pertaining to the smart grid.

As a result of his efforts, Chen was recently awarded the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Leadership Award for the contributions he has made to IEEE activities and the leadership he’s displayed through IEEE at the local, regional and national levels. In a congratulatory letter, Wai-Choong Wong, vice president of the member and geographic activities at IEEE, stated that Chen has set a great example in carrying forward the goals and objectives of the IEEE MGA board.

Chen said he is grateful for all he learned in his education at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as what he has been able to accomplish since then by means of his work at PNNL, as well as through his involvement with the IEEE.

“These opportunities changed my life,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot in my career as an engineer and I believe it is my responsibility to not only increase the capabilities of the power grid, but to also increase the potential for the world’s future engineers who will solve many of these energy-related problems.”