No more excuses. Math can be fun!

Everyone who teaches a math-related subject has probably struggled with attracting (and keeping) the students’ attention. At parties, it gets even worse:

– “Hey, nice to meet you. What do you do?”

– “I’m a professor.”

– “Really? What do you teach?”

– “How to use mathematical models to help business managers make better decisions.”

– “Hmm, interesting stuff…I never really liked math…<awkward silence>…see you later.”

Times have changed. With books like The Goal, The Numerati, and Innumeracy (among others) and publications like Interfaces and the Analytics magazine, there are no more excuses. Fun and realistic examples describing how math, stats and OR are being used in real life abound. Why not use them in class? I propose, however, that we go one step further. Why not make one of these books the assigned course reading? Go over the book in class and, every now and then, stop, teach the technique in question, do a few exercises, and then proceed with the reading. I haven’t finished reading the Numerati yet, but it certainly would lend itself to something of the sort. Here’s the approach: start by showing a realistic problem, with a real story and facts provided by a third party that corroborate its relevance. Then, and only then, show the math that tackles it. Repeat until final exam.

While I haven’t had time to transform my own classes in such a drastic way, I’ve decided to increase the appeal of my MBA course on Management Science Models for Decision Making (a.k.a. OR) by spending the first 5 minutes of each lecture going over a real-life application of OR. The source of these applications? My fellow OR bloggers! Here’s the list of applications I used this past Spring:

Open Pit MiningFewer Brown Left Turns, Optimizing Airline Routes, Revenue Management at Thomson Holidays, Swapping Kidneys, Renewable Energy Portfolios, Domino Artwork, Aisle Design for Warehouses, Dutch Railway Scheduling, OR at the Lego Factory.

After explaining the application and the role OR plays in it, I connect the problem with the topic we are currently studying. The students’ reaction is always very positive. And, if you’re feeling audacious, you can even close it all with MC Hammer’s YouTube video on Analytics! I’m curious to know what other instructors in quantitative disciplines do to motivate their students. Let me know in the comments!


Filed under Teaching

2 responses to “No more excuses. Math can be fun!

  1. apricoco

    Give me some real life examples of the uses of calculus and then.. only then.. will I believe you.

  2. orbythebeach

    When I worked on my second product line simplification project (after John Deere), we used the small change formula to model an approximation to a highly non-linear cost function and it worked pretty well!

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