O.R. without borders: Introducing O.R. in Mongolian Schools

INFORMS leaders join Mongolia’s strategic efforts to emphasize analytics in its education system.

By Mendsaikhan Sonomtseren, Altantsetseg Sodnomtseren and Khuslen Zorigt

Altantsetseg Sodnomtseren, Demberel Ayush, James J. Cochran, Mendsaikhan Sonomtseren, Edward H. Kaplan, Oyunchimeg Dandar and Ganchimeg Mijiddorj (l-r) meet at the NRSO Headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Altantsetseg Sodnomtseren, Demberel Ayush, James J. Cochran, Mendsaikhan Sonomtseren, Edward H. Kaplan, Oyunchimeg Dandar and Ganchimeg Mijiddorj (l-r) meet at the NRSO Headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Mongolia is situated in the center of Asia, sharing a 3,543-kilometer border with the Russian Federation to the north and a 4,710-kilometer border with the People’s Republic of China to the south. The country is comprised of great plains, steppes and rolling hills, as well as several mountain ranges and lakes – both fresh water and salt water. Mongolia is the 19th largest nation in the world by size of its territory and the 138th largest in population (as of 2014), making it the least densely populated country in the world.

About one-third of Mongolia’s 3 million people live in rural areas, and the majority of the rural population is composed of nomadic pastoralists. The population is increasingly young and urban; almost one-third of the population is under 18, and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar has grown rapidly over the past 20 years.
Though the Mongolian education system has to meet the challenges of serving a population that is both urban and nomadic and is dispersed over a wide area, the country’s literacy rate of more than 97 percent [1] is one of the highest in the world. The number of students enrolled in Mongolian educational institutions of all levels reached 742,000 in the 2015-16 academic year. In 2015, the nation’s total expenditure on the science sector was just 0.1 percent of its GDP.

Although the education system is well developed with a high literacy rate and a low dropout rate (0.7 percent of children aged 6-15 in the 2011-2012 academic year), the study of operations research and statistics in Mongolian curricula is limited. Neither operations research nor statistics are generally part of high school curricula, so the students lack necessary applied mathematics skills. Furthermore, lack of exposure to statistics in particular creates difficulties for Mongolian students when they apply for admission to undergraduate programs with universities in developed countries. In addition, neither operations research nor statistics coursework is included in most undergraduate programs in any major offered by universities in Mongolia. Therefore, developing secondary school statistics education programs, creating resources and building capacities in these areas are an important part of school curriculum reform in Mongolia. The question for the Mongolian government and its people is: How do we accomplish this daunting and formidable task?

In its first step in achieving this objective, the National Registration and Statistics Office of Mongolia (NRSO) and the National University of Mongolia (NUM) recently co-hosted a series of events under the theme of “Applied Statistics: Teaching, Research and Business Innovation.” The events were organized jointly with INFORMS President Edward H. Kaplan of Yale University, James L. Rosenberger of Penn State University and James J. Cochran of the University of Alabama. The events represented the first step in a major initiative designed to support Mongolian high schools and universities efforts to teach students basic statistics and operations research literacy and introduce them to careers in these professions.

The week began with a series of meetings between representatives of the NRSO and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, along with professors Kaplan and Cochran. The participants discussed in detail the current state of operations research and statistics education in Mongolia, the goals for introducing content in these areas into high school and undergraduate curricula and strategies to accomplish these objectives. The meetings underscored the importance of an applications orientation, and suggested several ways in which INFORMS, the American Statistical Association and U.S. universities could assist Mongolia in achieving its objectives.

Four events were held throughout the remainder of the week in support of these efforts, starting with a full-day workshop, “Basic Operations Research for Statisticians,” held at the National University of Mongolia. The workshop consisted of two coordinated sessions: “Introduction to Linear Programming for Statisticians” and “Stochastic/Probabilistic Models.”

The first session, led by the Professor Cochran, covered the basics of linear programming. Participants learned about problem formulation, sensitivity analysis and interpretation of solutions. Active learning exercises throughout the session highlighted the extension of linear programming to integer programming while demonstrating the Excel-based Solver software.

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. Image © qumrran | 123rf.com

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. Image © qumrran | 123rf.com

In the afternoon session, Professor Kaplan outlined numerous, interesting and provocative examples of stochastic modeling in operations research. Participants learned and explored random incidence, Markov chains and Little’s Theorem and queueing theory using numerical calculations supported with Excel and the freely available Queueing ToolPak add-in. Applications included: how just missing a bus can reduce your expected waiting time, why your friends have more friends than you do, managing a prison system, cancer progression, cyber terrorism, blood banking, estimating the size of hidden queues such as undetected HIV infections or undetected terror plots, and staffing service systems.

More than 80 enthusiastic participants, including instructors from Mongolian universities and managers from Mongolian businesses, participated in the workshop. Several indicated that they had never seen these any of the concepts presented and could envision several applications to their own work, while others indicated that they had seen some of these concepts but understood them much better after the sessions. Many participants also expressed appreciation for the novel approaches to presenting the material and said they saw alternatives to their classroom approaches that they were eager to try for themselves.

The following day, professors Cochran and Rosenberger led a half-day workshop, “Introducing Statistics into the High School Mathematics Curriculum,” that featured discussions on how high school mathematics teachers can integrate basic probability and statistics concepts into their algebra, geometry and calculus courses; develop statistics courses appropriate for high school students; and integrate these courses into their existing mathematics curricula. Participants learned about topics that can be covered, the order in which they can be covered, and the relationships between some core high school mathematics concepts and concepts in statistics and probability. More than 100 eager mathematics teachers from secondary schools of Ulaanbaatar participated in the workshop. Again, participants indicated that they appreciated seeing new statistical concepts and how they could be used to reinforce discussions on algebra, geometry and calculus, as well as the presentation styles of the two speakers, which was far more interactive than is generally used by teachers in Mongolia.

Later that same day, Cochran taught a class of 11th-year secondary school students some basic concepts of statistics using a case that he had written and used in his introductory statistics courses. Several high school mathematics teachers, college mathematics and education instructors, and officials of Mongolia’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Science attended and observed the 90-minute session. After the session, the students and observers participated in a group discussion led by Cochran in which they discussed the class they had just experienced along with issues that could arise in implementing the case method in Mongolian high schools.

The students were enthusiastic about the case method, and they enjoyed the challenge of working on an open-ended problem with several potentially correct answers and having an opportunity to justify their answers. The teachers and instructors were intrigued by the case methodology and appreciated the opportunity to observe this demonstration of a teaching method that is not common to Mongolia. A few expressed concerns about finding or developing cases and developing the skills needed to teach and manage a classroom when using the case method.

Later in the week, the international conference, “Applied Statistics: Teaching, Research, and Business Innovation” was held at the Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel in Ulaanbaatar. The conference aimed to provide a forum for academics, researchers and practitioners to exchange ideas and share knowledge on recent developments in operations research, management science, statistics and other related areas. In addition, the conference fostered networking among the conference participants in the core areas of operations management, management science, mathematics, statistics and ICT, while highlighting various applications in these areas.

Following the workshops and conference, Cochran and Rosenberger met with H.E. Jennifer Galt, the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia, and several key members of her staff at the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia. Ambassador Galt indicated that she was very impressed with the events of the week and the progress that had been made, and she indicated that whenever possible, she and her staff would support further efforts toward the objective of the initiatives.

Faculty members from many universities and colleges including the National University of Mongolia, Mongolian Education University, State University of Life Sciences and the Institute of Finance and Economics participated and made presentations during the conference. Additionally, representatives of state organizations (NRSO, Mongol Bank, Ministry of Finance, etc), research organizations and industry practitioners also presented research papers at a one-day conference that attracted about 100 attendees.

Going forward, these events, which received extensive coverage by the Mongolian media (Internet, television and newspapers), will help the NRSO, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and universities in Mongolia initiate efforts to quickly improve students’ understanding and ability to apply basic statistics and operations research to problems in commerce and society. The week of events also helped establish a strong network of university faculty, graduate students, high school teachers, business people and government officials who are interested in supporting and contributing to the effort.

The authors and our colleagues at the NRSO and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science next plan to work with colleagues in the United States to organize and fund a workshop to be held at the University of Alabama next summer. Plans call for approximately 20 instructors from Mongolian universities to travel to the campus to receive one to two weeks of instruction on how to teach basic applied statistics from several well-respected statistics instructors. The participants will then receive the materials used in the instruction so they can prepare to give the same workshop for their colleagues at their home institutions in Mongolia (with the U.S. instructors’ assistance) in the summer of 2018 and beyond. In this way, Mongolia can build its own statistics capacity, and rapidly expand its high school and college students’ understanding and application of statistics and operations research.

Mendsaikhan Sonomtseren has served as the chairman of the National Registration and Statistics Office of Mongolia (NRSO) since 2009. Prior to joining the NRSO, he held other high-ranking positions with the government of Mongolia including advisor to the Speaker of Parliament, Minister of Nature and Environment, and vice minister of Fuel and Energy.

Altantsetseg Sodnomtseren is a consultant and manager of international programs and projects with more than 15 years of experience as a manager, policy analyst and researcher in strategic management, business development, institutional assessment and higher education. She has worked for the NRSO, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the Asia Research Center, and she was an International Policy Fellow at the Open Society Foundations.

Khuslen Zorigt has served as senior officer of the Foreign Relations Division at NRSO since 2008. She has also served as an officer of the Foreign Relations Departments for the NRSO and the Office of the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar.


  1. http://unicefmongolia.blogspot.com/2014/09/writing-bright-future-literacy-rates-in.html