INNOVATIVE EDUCATION: Sparking the O.R. flame in high schools

Sparking the O.R. flame in high schools

By Daria Terekhov, Maliheh Aramon Bajestani and Tony T. Tran

ORMS Today articles such as “Can You Imagine … 500,000 Prep Proponents of O.R.?” by Chelst et al. [1] describe the vision and efforts that are bound to revolutionize our profession. Imagine, indeed, the next generation of high school students being able to recognize that choosing the quickest subway path to reach a particular destination, devising a treatment plan for lung cancer, and determining the best players to recruit to a hockey team are all operations research problems. Imagine high school students playing Starcraft while knowing that, in order to win, they need to optimize the order in which they build facilities, or watching the latest movie and realizing that the main character has to solve a complex decision-making problem under uncertainty.

These situations are, in fact, examples of problems asked at The Operations Research Challenge (TORCH, http://orchallenge.org), an annual one-day, free, high school contest organized at the University of Toronto. TORCH was founded in 2011 by Toronto Intelligent Decision Engineering Laboratory (TIDEL) graduate students Daria Terekhov, Maliheh Aramon Bajestani, Tony T. Tran, T. K. Feng and Christian Muise, under the guidance of Professor J. Christopher Beck. The contest was founded with the following goals in mind:

• to interest high school students in operations research and demonstrate the importance of O.R. in solving real-world problems, and

• to encourage a wide range of high school students to consider studying O.R. at the university level.

On the day of the event, arriving TORCH participants are greeted by a conference atmosphere: After obtaining their name tags, they attend a short “plenary” about the contest set-up. The set-up is simple: The contest involves solving two sets of written questions; teams work in separate rooms and have all of the room’s resources at their disposal; computers are not allowed; students are served snacks and lunch. After the contest, another plenary awaits the students – this time, it’s an “Introduction to Operations Research” lecture by a professor from the university’s Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, followed by graduate student presentations discussing some of the solutions to the contest problems and an awards ceremony. 

Being “in charge” of a classroom and, in particular, having the freedom to use the blackboard, is one of the highlights of the event for the participants. Since computers are not allowed, TORCH attracts a very diverse group of students, not just those who already know programming.

High school students work a TORCH problem

The contest questions are designed to be appealing to teenagers, based on either fantasy settings or real-world applications. By asking the teams to solve problems with a level of difficulty well beyond that of the problems typically seen in school, the contest promotes the students’ problem-solving skills and creativity. Additionally, the problems posed at TORCH are different from typical high school problems since 1) they allow students from various grades to compete against each other, and 2) the students can always see at least one (feasible) solution or approach to obtaining such a solution, and the challenge lies in having the insight to find the optimal one. 

To the best of the founders’ knowledge, the event is currently the only one of its kind in North America. In the initial year of the competition, 2011, the contest attracted 37 participants. Participation has grown every year since, from 65 in 2012 to 88 in 2013 and 95 in 2014. Over the years, the number of people involved in organizing the event has also increased. Through the advice of Professor Timothy Chan, TORCH was able to secure additional sponsors and increase promotional efforts. TORCH plans to continue growing in the coming years and to attract high school students from across North America. 

The feedback received from the participants and their parents since TORCH 2011 has been very positive. Examples include: “I liked having the chance to solve problems that are relevant to real life,” “the problems were really challenging and interesting,” and “while he was watching the London Olympics this year, [my son] recalled one of the problem[s] ... requires the team to use math in optimizing a route for spectators... He would not have thought about using math this way before.”

TORCH is complementary to programs such as MINDSET [2], HSOR [3], BLOSSOMS [4] and Project MathWORKS! [6] – it reaches out to students who have never taken (or, in fact, heard of) an O.R. course, inspiring them to seek out high school O.R. resources and study O.R. in college. 

TORCH is organized by University of Toronto graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and its success is heavily dependent on the time and effort of many student volunteers, university staff and professors. TORCH is also grateful to all of the sponsors who have made this event possible for four years. 

For more information about TORCH, visit www.orchallenge.org or contact the TORCH executive at info@orchallenge.org. TORCH is currently seeking additional sponsors to support its expansion plans.

Daria Terekhov (dterekho@mie.utoronto.ca), a co-founder of The Operations Research Challenge, is a post-doctoral fellow working in the area of operations research at the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto. Her research interests include dynamic scheduling, queueing theory and inverse optimization.

Maliheh Aramon Bajestani (maramon@mie.utoronto.ca), a co-founder of The Operations Research Challenge, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto. Her research interests include stochastic optimization in the area of maintenance & reliability engineering, integrated decision-making, and scheduling.

Tony T. Tran (tran@mie.utoronto.ca), a co-founder of The Operations Research Challenge, is a doctoral student at the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto. His research interests include decomposition models and combinatorial optimization in dynamic environments.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Canadian Operations Society Bulletin (Vol. 47, No. 2, 2013).

References

1. Chelst, K. R., Edwards, T. G., Young, R., Keene, K. and Royster, D., 2008, “Can You Imagine … 500,000 Prep Proponents of O.R.,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 35, No. 4.

2. Chelst, K. R., Edwards, T. G., Young, R., Keene, K., Norwood, K. and Pugalee, D., 2010, “When Will I Ever Use This Stuff? Operations Research Transforms the High School Math MINDSET,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 37, No. 4.

3. Edwards, T.G. and Chelst, K.R., 2004, “The HSOR Project: Insinuating O.R. into High School Mathematics Classrooms,” INFORMS Transactions on Education, Vol. 4, No 3.

4. Larson, R. C., 2010, “O.R. ‘BLOSSOMS’ in High Schools,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 37, No. 5. 

5. Mehrotra, V., 2006, “Most Important Thing Our Profession Can Do,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 33, No. 1.

6. Wong, E. Y., 2006. “Work in Progress: Project MathWORKS! Introducing Operations Research to High Schools,” 36th Annual IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference.