WSU News

Research helps soldiers in foreign cultures

Lois James, left, and Bryan Vila of WSU Spokane.
SPOKANE, WASH. – Researchers at Washington State University Spokane have been awarded a three-year $2.25 million grant by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to help develop a high-tech social interaction training module for young warfighters sent on foreign missions.
The grant is part of DARPA’s Good Stranger program, an ambitious $32.5 million research effort to maximize the success of military ground troops who face culturally diverse encounters in unfamiliar environments.
“These days, the generals sitting back at headquarters often have less control of ground wars, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions than you’d expect,” said Bryan Vila, the principal investigator on the project. “In infantry missions, success can and often does hinge on how younger enlisted men and women interact with the people they meet, and the initiative they show or don’t show.”
Vila, a professor of criminal justice, and Lois James, postdoctoral research associate and co-principal investigator, will collaborate with two Washington-based partners on the project: the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC), which handles training of nearly all law enforcement, corrections and public safety professionals in the state, and Advanced Interactive Systems, a Seattle-based firm that manufactures realistic use-of-force training simulators.
The team’s efforts will focus on training techniques research. Based on a number of key skills that will be identified through social science research, the team will create the training curriculum; develop metrics to measure trainer and trainee performance; provide training to experienced military and police trainers; and oversee formation of a mobile training team that will pilot test the curriculum in the field.
Trainer training will take place at the WSCJTC’s Spokane facility. Prior to and following training, skills will be tested in interactive, simulated encounter scenarios developed by the team and filmed in Spokane. The scenarios will be run in two use-of-force simulation suites inside the simulation laboratory that Vila heads as part of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center.
Vila said earlier grant-funded work makes the team well positioned to work on the prestigious project. In previous projects funded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Naval Research and DARPA, Vila and his staff converted training simulators into research tools to measure police officers’ judgment and driving performance while well rested versus sleep deprived.
A former Marine and cop himself, Vila has done extensive research on issues related to the performance of police officers, whom he points to as excellent role models for successful interactions in culturally diverse, fast-paced and high-risk encounters.
“What we’re developing isn’t just cultural sensitivity training,” said Vila. “By teaching young warfighters how to observe, understand and engage people – some of the same skills valued in cops – we will help them be safer and do their jobs better in a tough environment.”
Related websites:
Jun. 7, 2011 news release, “Defense grant expands police fatigue study
May 9, 2011 news release, “Study to examine fatigue, distraction in police driving
Oct. 16, 2009 news release, “Book tackles cross-cultural police training
Jun. 4, 2008 news release on addition of simulation lab 
WSU Spokane:
WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center:
WSU Spokane criminal justice program:
WSU Office of Research: