ISSUES IN EDUCATION

MIT BLOSSOMS – five years later

By Richard Larson

In October 2010 I wrote an “Issues in Education” column about a new initiative at MIT, BLOSSOMS – Blended Learning Open Source Science Or Math Studies (http://blossoms.mit.edu). Well, that was five years ago and BLOSSOMS is well into its seventh year of operation. So, here is an update.

First, why discuss high school education here, in an INFORMS publication? Well, I cannot think of a better way to excite young people about math than to expose them to some OR/MS concepts and applications while still in high school, long before they enter the university. Typical math in high schools, taught from silo-ed textbooks that often lack compelling real-world applications, are known not to excite students. OR/MS can show them the excitement and relevance of math to their world, and it can be mind-bending.

Our BLOSSOMS lessons expose them to many OR/MS topics: Chinese Postman Problem; Monte Hall Three-Door Problem; The Diet Problem; the Topology of Social Networks; Geometrical Probability; The Braess Paradox and Traffic Planning; Epidemiology; The Mathematics of Voting; Tragedy of the Commons; and numerous algorithms such as Tower of Hanoi.

For those of you who may not be familiar with BLOSSOMS, it is a growing repository of highly interactive video lessons to be shown in mathematics and science high school classrooms. The BLOSSOMS lesson is shown on a screen at the front of the class, with students in their regular seats with all their electronic gadgets OFF. The only computer that is active is the teacher’s laptop, which contains the downloaded BLOSSOMS lesson (no in-class Internet required!). The BLOSSOMS video moves in short segments, typically two minutes for the first segment and about four-to-five for each follow-on segment. Each segment challenges the class in some non-textbook way, and then fades to black. At that point the in-class teacher takes over and works with the class in some lively learning activity, maybe a simulation, a game, a collaboration with one’s neighbors, etc.

The goal is for the class to reach some learning objective before the next segment is shown. In a typical 50-minute class, at most about 20 total minutes of BLOSSOMS video are shown and at least 30 minutes of live in-class activities occur.

The goals of BLOSSOMS are: enhance students’ critical thinking skills; get them excited about STEM careers, including OR/MS; show relevance of math and science to everyday lives; and enhance cross-cultural awareness, sensitivity and appreciation. The cross-cultural aspect is enabled by participation of our country partners: Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Malaysia, China and Japan (and of course, the USA!).

How does it work? Let’s consider one lesson, “Averages, Still Flawed,” by Dr. Rhonda Jordan and Dr. Dan Livengood (http://blossoms.mit.edu/videos/lessons/averages_still_flawed). It starts with Rhonda and Dan sitting on a river bank, fishing, with Garrison Keeler’s Prairie Home Companion radio show signing off: “That’s all from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The radio is turned off and Dan laughs. Rhonda asks, “What’s so funny, Dan?” Dan says it’s not possible for all the children of Lake Wobegon to be above average. Then Rhonda says, “Well, I don’t know, let’s ask the class.”

Then looking straight into the camera, Rhonda says, “Class, do you think it’s possible or impossible for all the children of Lake Wobegon to be above average? Discuss with your neighbor and with your teacher, and meet us back in our classroom in about five minutes.”

That’s the opening scene, and there are five later scenes, each challenging the class. By the way, Garrison Keeler’s statement can be either false or true, depending on how you define the base for averaging. We direct the in-class teacher to have the students discover this complexity. (Every BLOSSOMS lesson has a video teacher’s guide, to help the live teacher direct the discovery learning occurring in the classroom.)

My favorite later segment: Rhonda says to Dan, in a baseball field, “Dan, I’m depressed about Facebook. My friends on Facebook seem to have more friends than I do.” This gets to the subject of the “friendship paradox,” which Dan and Rhonda challenge the class to prove for one simple situation. The lesson ends with a surprise appearance of Rhonda’s mom, flown in for the day to watch her daughter filming a BLOSSOMS lesson (and to wrap up the lesson, on screen).

You can be part of BLOSSOMS. You can talk with us about creating a new BLOSSOMS lesson. Other INFORMS folks have done this, for instance Andy Felt of University of Wisconsin (Stevens Point), “The Mathematics of Voting.” Ken Chelst is about to deliver a BLOSSOMS lesson created by one of his students. Or, you can use a BLOSSOMS lesson whenever you are invited to visit a classroom to discuss OR/MS; we have plenty of lessons to choose from. You can make your local school district aware of BLOSSOMS; the price is right – zero! You can encourage your students to contact us about BLOSSOMS. A large fraction of BLOSSOMS lessons have been made by students – graduate, undergraduate and high school!

We want “the world” to create BLOSSOMS lessons. Five years ago, in our first column, I reported about 40 BLOSSOMS lessons. Today we have three times that number. With your help, that figure will continue to grow. And young learners worldwide will benefit!

Richard Larson (rclarson@mit.edu) is the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems and the Director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at MIT.