Our Team

Jim Nicolette, M. Ed., VAEI Associate Director

With over forty years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and professional development specialist, Jim continues to pursue his passion for advancing science education. As an award-winning science teacher, Jim constantly strived to change and improve science education. He worked with a team to develop and implement the first Tech Prep program in the state of MI, trained hundreds of K-12 teachers through Operation Physics, participated in the Teacher In Industry program, worked as a Professional Development Specialist with Grand Rapids Public Schools, and has served the broader educational community through various administrative roles. In his current role as VAEI Associate Director, Jim works with a talented team of science educators dedicated to improving science education through inquiry-based methods.

Jim Nicolette, M. Ed., VAEI Associate Director
Jerry Callahan, Ph.D., M.S., Business and Operations Program Champion
Jerry Callahan, Ph.D., M.S., Business and Operations Program Champion

A self-confessed “change zealot,” Jerry brings more than 20 years of administrative, teaching, and startup experience, having built one of the country’s first fully accredited online degree programs. Jerry joins our team in his role as Vice President of Strategic Projects at the Van Andel Institute. In his career, Jerry has founded and launched five companies focused on advancing science and education. We describe Jerry as the human version of a tornado.

Jerry joined the team because, “I believe NexGen Inquiry™ will support teachers as they strive to unlock the amazing potential in their students.”

Marty Coon, Ph.D. Candidate, Science Education Specialist

Marty is passionate about improving the teaching and learning of exemplary inquiry-based science. He has ten years of classroom teaching experience, nine years of experience coordinating a K-12 science program and directing a teacher resource and development center, and nine years of experience as a Science Education Specialist – where he performed program research, design, and implementation, as well as teacher professional development.

Marty Coon, Ph.D. Candidate, Science Education Specialist
Randy Schregardus, M. Ed., Science Education Specialist
Randy Schregardus, M. Ed., Science Education Specialist

Randy has been inspiring students and teachers to “Think and Act Like Scientists” for the past 27 years. Passionate about engaging students and teachers in “hands on, minds on, real world” science, Randy has taught general science, earth science, biology, and physics to students ranging from 4th-12th grade. Randy understands the everyday challenges and rewards of implementing scientific inquiry into the classroom. As head coach of award-winning First Robotics, Middle and High School Science Olympiad, and Rocketry Teams, Randy recognizes what it takes to create a culture of success.

Janyce Huff, M. Ed., Science Education Specialist

A technology enthusiast with a passion for education, Janyce served as a classroom teacher in General Sciences, High School Chemistry, and AP Biology for twelve years. She was also the technology coordinator in her school, and integrated technology whenever it aided students’ learning. Prior to teaching, she spent twelve years in quality control and new product development in the food, drug, and medical device industries. She has a passion for public service, and helped bring Safety Town for preschoolers, recreational programming for all ages, and substance abuse prevention programming to her community.

Janyce Huff, M. Ed., Science Education Specialist
Carole Johnson, M.A., Curriculum Specialist
Carole Johnson, M.A., Curriculum Specialist

Carole strives to connect the dots between curriculum, assessment, and the role of a supportive environment, to form a fully integrated education experience. She has many years of classroom experience as a mathematics teacher and a science teacher, as well as a curriculum specialist. She has taught at both the K-12 and university levels. Being an avid "slogger" (slow jogger) and yogi, her approach to both work and life is to be introspective, balanced, and flexible.

Matt Burns, Ph.D., Educational Technology Specialist

A tech-evangelist, Matt brings more than 20 years of middle school and high school teaching experience, 8 years of college and university adjunct teaching experience, 7 years of experience as a school district tech coordinator – where he created and administered over 50 professional development courses, and 17 years of experience as a tech specialist for VAEI.

Matt joined the team because, “I enjoy preparing teachers and students for the future, and NexGen Inquiry™ is the best tool to accomplish that.”

Matt Burns, Ph.D., Educational Technology Specialist
Bill Dinkelmann, M. Ed., National Program Manager
Bill Dinkelmann, M. Ed., National Program Manager

Our resident software and technology integration expert, Bill brings an undeniable passion and commitment to the NexGen Inquiry™ team. Bill draws from 20+ years of teaching, regional education consulting, technology integration, and project management experience to identify, design, and integrate technology tools for teachers to engage students in meaningful and transformative ways.

Bill’s mission-focused work ethic and sense of humor was forged as a graduate of the U. S. Coast Guard Academy and as a Coast Guard officer serving in Alaska, Washington, D.C., and throughout the Great Lakes.

Patty Farrell-Cole, PhD, Evaluation Specialist

Patty holds a master's degree in organizational and adult learning from the University of New Mexico and a PhD in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education from Michigan State University. Patty worked as an organizational development specialist for the Intel Corporation. Her career in academia has included academic advising, evaluating programs, leading programs, and teaching undergraduate and graduate courses. Most recently, Patty served as the Director of University Relations and Policy Research at the Presidents Council for the State Universities of Michigan. As Evaluation Specialist for the Science Academy, she sustains the ongoing assessment of on-site student programs and face-to-face teacher professional development programs. Patty will also take a lead on evaluating the impact of the NexGen Inquiry project.

Patty Farrell-Cole, PhD, Evaluation Specialist
Robin Moliassa, Marketing and Community Manager
Robin Moliassa, Marketing and Community Manager

Robin holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations and Marketing from Northern Michigan University. Robin most recently worked for Fox-17 based in Grand Rapids, MI, creating and managing successful marketing campaigns and solutions for businesses on a local, regional and national level. She also has experience in radio and internet sales as well as customer service from two previous jobs in Marinette, WI, and Boulder, CO. Robin loves running, beach volleyball, delicious local fare and traveling.

As a daughter of two public school teachers, she has a great passion and appreciation for the programs and support that VAEI offers students and teachers. She is very excited to lead NexGen Inquiry’s marketing and community functions supporting teachers utilizing the NexGen Inquiry platform.

Dawn McCotter, Technology Based Learning Specialist

Dawn devoted over twelve years to teaching science at Grand Haven High School where she taught multiple classes including Earth Science, Physics, Astronomy and Project Science. During her tenure, Dawn had the opportunity to work with diverse learners, from various academic and personal backgrounds. She started her career as a Science Olympiad coach and proceeded to become heavily involved in curriculum and instruction for the district. Dawn served as a district Design Team chair for eight years and a member of the Balanced Assessment team at Grand Haven High School for 6 years, in which she was chair for her last 3 years. Most recently, Dawn enjoyed working with staff as a trained Cognitive Coach and Classroom Learning Lab Facilitator.

Dawn holds a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University with endorsements in Biology and General Science. She received her master’s degree from Grand Valley University in Educational Technology. Dawn is very excited to be able to utilize both her classroom experience and education in her role as a Technology Based Learning Specialist. She is also looking forward to sharing her passion of scientific inquiry with teachers and students in both face to face and online settings.

Dawn McCotter, Technology Based Learning Specialist
Lisa Neeb, Instructional Specialist
Lisa Neeb, Instructional Specialist

Formally a marine-mammal trainer and high school biology teacher, Lisa brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in animal behavior and interactive teaching to the Science Academy. Her passion for the environment and science education is clear in the programming she delivers. She is an animal lover at heart and finds great joy in sharing her stories of animal antics with her students.

Lisa was delighted to join the VAEI team and thinks, “It’s wonderful to be part of an organization that really excites students about science and encourages fun and exploration in the process.”

Kara Ponstein, Instructional Assistant

As a recent college graduate, Kara brings a fresh, energetic perspective to the VAEI team while continuing to build her natural teaching skills. Her evident passion for student learning sparks creativity and innovative ideas. While raising the bar for science education, Kara’s infectious excitement energizes the team.

When offered the opportunity to be a part of the VAEI team, Kara thought, “what a great chance to strengthen adolescents’ science education and motivate them to ask questions.”

Kara Ponstein, Instructional Assistant
Billie Halfmann, Senior Administrative Assistant
Billie Halfmann, Senior Administrative Assistant

Billie attended Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, and has been with Van Andel Institute since its opening in 2000. Billie serves as Senior Administrative Assistant at Van Andel Education Institute.

Deb Verlin, Senior Administrative Assistant

When Deb Verlin joined the team 5 years ago as a Senior Administrative Assistant, the spoken words “tarantula,” “bearded dragon,” or “pill bug” would curl her toes and cast her into a frozen state. Today, while Deb navigates through the Science Academy carrying out her various responsibilities, you’re likely to see her stopping by the organism habitats to observe, or just offer a greeting, and she is always anxious to share her excitement with others. When she’s not playing with the critters, she enjoys her more serious operational tasks. She is personable and effective in resolving A/R, A/P, and any general project challenges or questions.

Job enthusiasm is not a rare commodity at the Science Academy, and whether Deb is completing expense reports, procuring product, or writing correspondence, she would be happy to show you around and introduce you to Toby the Tortoise.

Deb Verlin, Senior Administrative Assistant
Cory Kavanagh, Laboratory Aide
Cory Kavanagh, Laboratory Aide

Over the six years that Cory has worked with VAEI, he has gained a unique insight in the program offerings of the Science Academy. Known as the "Animal Guy" to Science Academy staff and students, Cory brings a strong passion and invaluable background knowledge of organisms housed at the Science Academy to support students and teachers.