Tag Archives: motivation

Optimization Games for the Young (Part 2)

 A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tell a story that motivated me to start creating games for children and young adults to get them excited about Operations Research/Prescriptive Analytics/Optimization and STEM in general. You can download my first two games here: Lego Furniture and Pack That Bag!

Since then, I can’t stop thinking about other games to create. I have four game ideas in my head right now and today I’m back to share my third one with you: Stop the Fire! This is actually based on a research problem on which I am working right now.

I hope you have a chance to play this and my other games with your young ones. Please let me know your experience with these games and any feedback you may have toward improving them in the comments below.

Keep playing!

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Filed under Analytics, Applications, Games, INFORMS K-12 Outreach, Integer Programming, Mathematical Programming, Modeling, Motivation, Promoting OR, Research, Teaching

Optimization Games for the Young

I’ve recently volunteered to be a part of the INFORMS K-12 Outreach Sub-Committee and the story behind this post has everything to do with my goals in helping the committee in its mission.

The 8-year-old daughter of one of my student’s significant other saw her doing homework and asked what it was. My student responded “optimization,” to which the 8yo replied “what’s optimization?” My student said she wasn’t able to provide a succinct enough explanation but the girl was interested and likes math in general. Therefore, I decided to take the opportunity and try to encourage this little girl. There are too few women in STEM fields, not because of lack of ability, but because insufficient encouragement and motivation. Maybe this gesture will make no difference in this girl’s life, but maybe it will. I can’t tell for sure, but I sure am going to try each and every time one of these opportunities comes up. I put together an envelope with 3 optimization games (with a little message on the outside) for my student to take home with her:

It’s often the case that little gestures can change a person’s life. I remember very clearly the tiny things my teachers / mentors / advisors / friends did that inspired me tremendously. I’m sure these people won’t even remember what they did because to them it might have been nothing. To the person on the receiving end, however, it meant a lot. This gesture is my attempt at paying it forward. To all of those who inspired and encouraged me throughout my life, thank you.

Several friends, upon hearing about this story, asked me for the games so they could play with their kids. One could argue that these are more like puzzles than games. I see them as games because you can have several people playing together, each trying it their own way, and teaching each other, or challenging each other, which creates a back-and-forth discussion where everybody learns something.

Here are the ones I created:

Lego Furniture game: http://moya.bus.miami.edu/~tallys/games/lego-furniture.pdf

Pack That Bag! game: http://moya.bus.miami.edu/~tallys/games/pack-that-bag.pdf

The third one, I got from the puzzlor.com website: Good Burger.

I hope these games become a source of fun for you and your kids as well. Enjoy!

By the way, the Lego pieces cut out of paper work pretty well:

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Filed under Analytics, Applications, Games, INFORMS, INFORMS K-12 Outreach, Integer Programming, Knapsack, Motivation, Promoting OR, Teaching

Ten Freshmen + 46 Slides = 1 Hour of OR Fun

I just finished my presentation to business undergraduate students and, from what I could tell by looking at them, I think it was successful. Of course the real test will be whether someone stops by my office saying “I love OR! Can I work with you?”. I want to thank our vice dean for this opportunity and I am looking forward to doing it again next year.

I closed the presentation with a little “quiz” based on a very nice paper by Brown, Klein, Rosenthal and Washburn entitled Steaming on Convex Hulls. Here’s how it goes (you can open the image on a new window to make it larger):

An aircraft carrier can run with 2 or 4 engines online. The graph below shows gallons of gasoline used per hour versus possible speeds for each engine configuration. How would you run the ship to cover 100 miles in 4 hours?

According to the article, the Navy spends over 1 billion dollars a year on surface combatants alone. An officer who became a ship commander after graduating from the academy was smart enough to solve the above problem the right way. His ship was saving so much fuel that it had to be inspected under the suspicion that it was violating safety regulations. But we all know it wasn’t. It was just a case of using analytical techniques to make better decisions.


Filed under Applications, Linear Programming, Motivation, Promoting OR

Getting Freshmen Excited About OR

The vice dean for undergraduate programs at the school of business asked me to make a presentation to a group of freshmen. My job is to tell them about the field of Management Science and the research that goes on in my department. The main goal is to get these students excited about research early on. Hopefully, they’ll get involved in undergraduate research projects and even consider joining our PhD program further down the road. My understanding is that every department in the school will make a similar presentation, but I’ll tell the students that OR is by far “the coolest topic” (sorry “other departments”, but I think it is!).

I think this is a great idea, especially because Management Science (or OR) is not a required class for all business majors and I believe that every business school graduate should at least know what OR is and what it can do for you (fortunately, OR is a required class for all MBA students in our school).

I’m putting together a presentation with the following outline:

  1. Introduction (who I am, my background, etc.)
  2. What is Management Science? (that’s where I tell them to use the name OR instead :-)
  3. Real-life applications of OR
  4. Research interests of the Management Science department (with a focus on my interests, at the request of the vice dean)
  5. Research opportunities for undergraduate students

The room is booked for 1 hour and 45 minutes, and I was told I can use as much time as I want. Boy, that’s a lot! For item number 3, I’ll pick a diverse collection of applications covering a wide range of topics. For item 4, I’ll tell them about things my colleagues have worked on, things I’ve done, and things I’m currently doing. Then I’ll move on to item 5 and close the presentation with problems on which I’d like to work with an undergraduate student (nothing that requires advanced OR knowledge, of course). One caveat is that I must tell them that my projects require some knowledge of computer programming and basic understanding of linear and integer programming (which they could get by taking one of our classes or by reading on their own).

I’ve also put together a Google document entitled A Hyperlinked Introduction to the World of Operations Research and Management Science, which I’m going to hand out at the end of the talk.

The purpose of this document is to function as an organized list of links to OR resources and interesting applications that the students can easily navigate to. It contains a superset of the real-world applications I’m going to tell them about, and it’s supposed to complement my talk. I hope this turns out to be useful to other people as well. Feel free to use it and let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement. I’m sure there are many interesting links that I forgot to include there.


Filed under Motivation, Promoting OR, Research

An OR Song: Math’s in Hiding

One of my goals with this blog is to help spread the word about the fabulous field of Operations Research (OR). I’m saddened, however, by how much the average person still hates mathematics and sees it as being of no use outside the classroom. Popular movies and TV shows (with very few exceptions) don’t portray math positively either (see, for example, this post by my former Carnegie Mellon classmate Abraham Flaxman).

Why do most people think it’s OK to hate math? I bet that if someone came on TV and said “I hate History” it would be a big deal, and critics would promptly jump in to provide explanations about the merits of the field. But hating math is commonplace; it’s “normal”. I beg to differ. I believe that it’s just a matter of teaching it differently and showing students, from the very beginning, all the wonderful things that math can accomplish. This is a crucial change that needs to begin in high school (if not earlier).

So I decided to write a song. More precisely, I decided to write alternative lyrics for an existing song. After all, everyone likes music, right? The song I chose to hijack was “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen in the 80’s. It’s a beautiful song that has been recorded by many different artists, the late Jeff Buckley being among the most popular ones (here’s a YouTube video). Personally, I prefer Allison Crowe’s interpretation because it’s a little more dramatic.

Before I show you the lyrics, a few comments are in order:

  • Although the song is about OR, I use the word “math” throughout because it is a more recognizable word. Besides, OR is about using math to improve decision making, and part of my goal is to help people realize that (there’s a shout out to INFORMS at the end :-)
  • I decided to refer to math as “she” because (i) it creates a parallel to the “she” in the original lyrics; (ii) this kind of anthropomorphism has been used before; (iii) it sounds more melodic and poetic than using “it”. However, if you are offended by that, or think this is politically incorrect, just replace “she/her” with “it/its”.
  • I’ve put the original Hallelujah lyrics side-by-side with my lyrics to make it easier for you to sing it. I chose the words carefully so that the cadence/tempo would remain the same. Trust me. I’ve tried it myself and it works.
  • I only have the lyrics so far (no recording) because I’m not a good singer, and I haven’t found anyone to sing it yet. I’d like to have a YouTube video clip with the lyrics as subtitles and a photo slide show, in sync with lyrics, showing examples of OR success stories.
  • I’ve included a few footnote questions about subtle references that appear in the lyrics (OK, I admit, most of them are easy). I figured it would be a fun little quiz anyway. If you know the answers, write them down in the comments below.

So, without further ado, here it is: Math’s in Hiding. Enjoy! And let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Going back to the topic of who could record this: ideally it should be someone who is familiar with OR. Well, I just happen to know the perfect person. Her name is Lucia. In addition to being a very talented singer and song writer (her debut album was released last year and she recently sang the national anthem at a Marlins game), she was my student in the MBA Optimization class a few years ago. Wouldn’t it be great to have an OR-themed concert at an INFORMS meeting with free tickets distributed to the general public?

Regardless of whether my lyrics are good or bad, I believe that songs like this are another way for us to try to plant the seed of love-for-math in the heart of future generations. At least it’s worth a try.


Filed under Motivation, Music, Promoting OR, Teaching

Don’t Get Discouraged! It Happens to Everyone

Once in a while, I feel a bit tired and discouraged, especially when I find myself stuck while trying to solve a particular problem. I attack it from different angles, try special cases, write down thousands of lines of code, and the little brat doesn’t give in. Sometimes, the best conclusion I am able to obtain is “none of these methods work”. Frustration sets in and, many years ago, I used to think to myself: “I wish I were as smart as person X; they never run into trouble like this.” But guess what? They do! An extremely successful researcher, whom I greatly respect and admire, once told me this:

At least half of my research has been unsuccessful.

Here’s another quote that I enjoy very much. It’s by Egon Balas and it appears in the epilogue of his book Will to Freedom:

…This is the flavor of mathematical discovery. It is an uneven process that often becomes hectic, with periods of sleepless of half-sleepless nights. It requires the kind of passionate concentration in the grip of which you forget about everything else for a while. To be successful at it, you must have “fire in your belly.” And it certainly helps if your basic inclination is to persist and not give up in the face of difficulties, not to become dejected in case of setbacks, but to try again and again until you manage to find the right way.

In the same book, Balas refers to a former colleague and collaborator of his, Grigore Moisil (a famous Romanian algebraist), who had some interesting views on how to do mathematics:

Mathematics is not necessarily done at your desk. Mathematics is done when you wake up in the morning and do not immediately get out of bed; it’s done in the bathtub; it’s done while sitting on the toilet; it’s done while you are dressing; and it’s done while you are taking a walk.

I agree with Moisil. That’s part of the fun with math; you can work on it just about anywhere. (I’m particularly fond of all kinds of waiting rooms: doctor’s/dentist’s office, airport gates, nail salon while waiting for wifey, etc.) In fact, changing your work environment may actually help. I’ve had many good ideas away from my desk.

Do you have a motivational quote or text to which you refer when feeling a bit discouraged? I’d love to read about them in the comments.


Filed under Motivation, Research