Issues in Education

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to class we go…

By Kevin Huston, Liz Bouzarth and John Harris

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
– Walt Disney

The Magic Kingdom serves as a backdrop for Furman University students in a MayX course.

The Magic Kingdom serves as a backdrop for Furman University students in a MayX course.

As a college professor, does the following sound familiar?

In an attempt to make your course material relevant, you excitedly bring a real-world problem to class. Your students show some initial excitement, but this wanes as the example progresses, likely because they are not as invested in the problem as you are. While the students appreciate the exposure to an application, this type of real-world experience still seems artificial and simplified to them.

This has happened to us many times. In looking for a way to improve this type of situation, we set out to design a class that would make these real-world experiences more authentic. Our goals in developing the course were to: (i) give students a new look at mathematics, its applications and potential career options; (ii) have the students generate their own meaningful questions and be motivated to seek their solutions; and (iii) enhance students’ abilities to communicate technical information.

Thinking also that a change in scenery might enhance the experience, we decided that rather than bringing the applications to the students, we would take the students to the applications – to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” in fact.

We work at Furman University, a private liberal arts institution in Greenville, S.C. After the spring semester, we have an optional three-week term called the May Experience (or MayX, for short). Classes offered during MayX are meant to be novel, interesting experiences that do not fit into the normal curriculum. They have few, if any, prerequisites, and they often take place away from campus. We developed a study away MayX course called “Math and the Mouse” that takes place in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

The class covers topics related to typical O.R./analytics courses to help students explore the ways mathematics is used to model real-world problems and to help them produce meaningful solutions. Topics include LP/IP modeling, scheduling, logistics, networks, queueing, probability, statistics and heuristic algorithms. Further, the class experiences are designed to foster in the students an inquisitive nature and sense of wonder associated with their view of the Disney parks and the world beyond.

For example, we introduce the Traveling Salesman Problem through an “in-class” activity that we called the Traveling Tourist Problem. We give the students a list of attractions that must be visited in a Disney park, and we allow the students access to park maps and data related to wait times at attractions throughout the day. The students work in groups to design tours of the attractions that they think would be the fastest.

The next day, the groups implement the tours by racing to see which group (including the group of professors) designed the best route. After the race, we spend class time discussing the modeling of the problem, their approaches to solving it, and some other common solution techniques, including heuristic approaches such as genetic algorithms. Afterward, our students meet with representatives from touringplans.com, a company that provides services related to visiting major tourist attractions.

One of the products that the company offers includes custom touring plans for Walt Disney World. Since some of their solution approaches involve genetic algorithms, the students see how what they had been learning is implemented on a larger scale. The students ask intelligent and relevant questions related to the material, and they see industry professionals using the ideas they recently explored themselves.

Although the topics in the course have a quantitative bent, participating students have come from a variety of majors: mathematics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, business, economics, health sciences, physics, music and Spanish. One challenge of this variety is that students’ prior mathematics experience is also varied. We often handle this by dividing projects into different levels and assigning students to the levels based on their prior experience.

The “Math and the Mouse” course gave students and professors a reason to celebrate.

The “Math and the Mouse” course gave students and professors a reason to celebrate.

One example of this involves a workforce scheduling problem that we designed in consultation with some Disney professionals. Using data that was crafted to resemble actual Disney data, the students model the scheduling of employees to cover the daily workload for a Magic Kingdom restaurant called The Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café. The task requires each group to create more than 250 constraints to successfully model the scenario. To accommodate the different levels of student experience, there is a difference in the complexity of the constraints required (more employee breaks mean a more complex set of constraints).

For most of the students, this is their first exposure to modeling – some students dubbed the problem “The Beast.” It is initially beyond their abilities, but after struggling with it for a few days (in consultation with a professor), they all get it. It is fun to see the smiles on their faces after taming “The Beast.”

The final week of the course is set up so that the students investigate projects in the park that they have an interest in solving. The students design the project, figure out how to collect the data, analyze the data and give presentations on their results. The process of having the students pick problems at Disney World solves the motivation problem that we found in our classrooms. In fact, students are excited to pursue the solutions and often ask questions that lead to discussions of advanced O.R., probability and statistics material.

Likewise, it is exciting for us to see that our students are motivated to learn and to investigate, and a wonderful after effect was that they build confidence in their own abilities. Further, they communicate their results through class presentations and by writing daily blogs about the course (mathandthemouse.blogspot.com).

For us, the payoffs for the course are numerous. Two-thirds of the students who have taken the course have subsequently taken a course in operations research, and the course has generated many summer research projects, related internship pursuits and student presentations at conferences. Further, of those Math and the Mouse alumni who have already graduated, half have pursued graduate programs in OR/ISyE or statistics/analytics. The excitement, creativity and success of our students makes this an incredibly rewarding professional experience for us.

Kevin Huston (Kevin.hutsom@furman.edu) is a professor of mathematics and Liz Bouzarth (liz.bouzarth@furman.edu) is an associate professor of mathematics at Furman University. John Harris is a professor of mathematics at Furman University.

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