ISSUES IN EDUCATION

Undergraduate Operations Research Prize

By Susan E. Martonosi, Joel Sokol, David Czerwinski and Feryal Erhun

“The Undergraduate Operations Research Prize Competition is held each year to honor a student or group of students who conducted a significant applied project in operations research or management science, and/or original and important theoretical or applied research in operations research or management science, while enrolled as an undergraduate student.” (From the INFORMS Policy and Procedures on Awards, 2011.)
Undergraduates do a considerable amount of operations research (O.R.) and management science (MS) of theoretical and applied research. Whereas the mathematics community has fostered undergraduate participation in research through the creation of undergraduate sessions at national meetings, undergraduate research prizes, conferences specifically for undergraduates and a large number of NSF-funded REU programs (Research Experience for Undergraduates), the O.R. community has been slow to encourage undergraduate research. Apart from a handful of O.R.-themed REUs, most undergraduate research in O.R. is ad hoc, with little supporting infrastructure from the broader O.R. community. The purpose of the INFORMS Undergraduate Operations Research Prize is to recognize ongoing theoretical and applied research and to spur more.

In a 2008 OR/MS Today article [1], Susan Martonosi outlined several benefits to the field of O.R. of engaging undergraduates in research and encouraged readers to send undergraduates to the INFORMS Annual Meeting to inspire them to pursue a career in operations research and management science. Martonosi and Joel Sokol then asked the INFORMS Board to establish the Undergraduate Operations Research Prize competition so that the prize might serve as an incentive for participation in, and to institutionalize the track of, undergraduate research sessions that the INFORMS Forum on Education had been sponsoring at the annual meeting. The prize was funded and first awarded in 2010.

In the first year of the competition, 24 research papers were submitted by 26 student co-authors; in the second year, 12 papers were submitted by 33 student co-authors. The overwhelming majority of these papers were of exceptional quality. The students had majors such as O.R., industrial engineering, mathematics and computer science. The 2010 winner was John Silberholz of the University of Maryland (now a Ph.D. student in the OR Center at MIT) for his paper, “The Effective Application of a New Approach to the Generalized Orienteering Problem” [2]. The 2011 winner was Matthew Robinson of the U.S. Military Academy (now on active duty in the Army) for his paper entitled, “Bayesian Applications in A Probability Programming Language.” In both years, all participants were invited to present their papers at the INFORMS Annual Meeting in a track of three sessions. A fourth session in the undergraduate track consisted of a panel of current and recent Ph.D. students discussing strategies for success in graduate school. The conversation was lively, and the undergraduates asked many questions about choosing an advisor, balancing coursework, research and teaching assistantships, choosing a research topic, etc. The sessions were well-attended not only by the competition participants, but also by other undergraduates at the conference, faculty advisors and other conference attendees.

The students universally appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference and present their work in the special track of sessions. Wrote one participant, “The conference seemed to be geared towards Ph.D. students, so it was nice to also have the undergraduate track.” Another wrote, “I thought the graduate panel was one of the most helpful talks I went to at the conference. It definitely achieved its objective of providing candid and unbiased information about O.R. graduate schools.” About the conference in general, another participant wrote, “I most enjoyed seeing what O.R. professionals are working on and how they formulate and approach problems. For an undergraduate, the track meetings provide a very diverse set of topics. It is interesting to realize the breadth and depth of the field.”

All Are Welcome

The third competition will take place this year; entries are due July 2 to the chair of the prize committee, Feryal Erhun (ferhun@stanford.edu). Entrants must submit a paper (which can be previously published or unpublished) presenting original applied or theoretical research. The paper can include non-undergraduate co-authors, but the undergraduates must have been the primary author(s) of the paper with only minor editorial assistance. The entrants’ research advisor must submit a brief statement confirming the entrants’ eligibility and detailing the entrants’ contribution to the research. (For full competition guidelines and review criteria, visit http://www.informs.org/Recognize-Excellence/INFORMS-Prizes-Awards/INFORMS-Undergraduate-Operations-Research-Prize.)

Any undergraduate who has completed an applied or theoretical O.R. research project is invited to submit a paper to the competition. All participants will be invited to present their work in a track of sessions associated with the competition. Attending the annual meeting provides valuable professional experience as well as opens students’ eyes to the broad impact of our field.

Getting more undergraduates interested in the theory and practice of operations research earlier will help to build our field’s professional pipeline and secure its relevancy into the future. Please encourage your students to participate.

References

  1. Martonosi, S. E., 2008, “Securing O.R.’s Future through Undergraduate Research,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 10-11.
  2. Silberholz, J., B. Golden, “The Effective Application of a New Approach to the Generalized Orienteering Problem,” Journal of Heuristics, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 393-415.