Issues in Education

You, INFORMS and OR/MS education

By James J. Cochran
jcochran@cba.ua.edu

Are you familiar with the wide array of INFORMS education-oriented initiatives and activities? I spoke about this with dozens of members at the recent INFORMS conference in Nashville and was I surprised at how many knew little or nothing about these efforts. I was able to (somewhat) rectify this problem with several of these colleagues one-on-one, but taking this approach to educating each member on INFORMS’ various education initiatives, while gratifying and worthwhile, would be extremely inefficient. I volunteered to contribute to the OR/MS Today “Issues in Education” column as a means of more efficiently addressing this issue.

Let’s start with the initiative around which the greatest number of members is directly involved – INFORM-ED. INFORM-ED (https://www.informs.org/Community/INFORM-ED) is INFORMS’ education forum. What is a forum? INFORMS’ structure of communities includes four broad classes: chapters, sections, societies and fora (or forums, if you prefer). A chapter is a geography-based group of INFORMS members; INFORMS has dozens of chapters throughout the United States and a few outside of the U.S. (such as the Korean and Polish chapters). A section is a group of INFORMS members who share some relatively narrow professional interest; INFORMS has many sections including Data Mining, Telecommunications and SpORts. A forum is a group of colleagues with a common professional interest that extends beyond disciplines and geography; INFORMS five fora are the Association of Chairs of O.R. Departments (ACORD), the Junior Faculty Interest Group (JFIG), the Minority Issues Forum (MIF), Women in OR/MS (WORMS) and the Forum on Education (INFORM-ED). A society is basically an overgrown section – a large group of INFORMS members with a common, relatively narrow professional interest; INFORMS has many societies including Optimization, Analytics and Military Applications.

INFORM-ED provides many important services to the OR/MS community and INFORMS members. Image © dotshock | 123rf.com

It is easy to understand why INFORM-ED is a forum rather than a section or society – OR/MS education is (or should be) of interest to all INFORMS members! Whether you work in academia, private industry or government, you have a vested interest in attracting bright young people into our discipline and providing them with the best possible OR/MS education experience. For this reason, it is difficult for me to understand why less than 1 percent of all INFORMS regular members belong to INFORM-ED.

This incredibly productive forum provides many important services to the OR/MS community and INFORMS members. It publishes a newsletter that provides its members with information on education initiatives, publishing outlets, workshops, software and other topics of interest. It sponsors this “Issues in Education” column in OR/MS Today. It organizes a deep and diverse track of informative sessions for the INFORMS Annual Meeting. It established and now organizes and sponsors the annual Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium that has been held annually prior to the annual INFORMS conference every year since 1999. And it established and sponsors the prestigious Case and Teaching Materials Competition that has been held during the INFORMS Annual Meeting every year since 2000. As I renew my INFORMS membership for 2017, I note that annual membership in the Forum on Education currently costs a regular member only $10! I do not know of too many bigger bargains.

I asked Palaniappa Krishnan, associate professor with the University of Delaware’s Applied Economics and Statistics Department and chair of the 2016 Case and Teaching Materials Competition, to share his thoughts on the competition. His response was:

“The INFORMS Case Competition is a great place to showcase one’s original teaching cases, and it is a terrific learning platform for young assistant professors who are trying to build a teaching portfolio. They can get good feedback about their cases and network with like-minded colleagues, and all faculty can find good material to use in their classrooms. Organizations that would like to work with faculty to develop teaching cases around their real experiences can also find potential partners for these endeavors.”

I asked Mihai Banciu, associate professor of Operations and Decision Sciences in the Bucknell University School of Management and chair of the 2016 Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium, to share his thoughts on OR/MS education, INFORM-ED and the Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium. Mihai’s response follows:

“To me, participating in TEC is important for two reasons: First, I don’t really think that one can truly separate research from teaching, and so I argue that by becoming a better teacher one does in fact become a better researcher and vice-versa. That is a “selfish” reason to attend TEC. Second, I think that we owe it to ourselves to train the next generation of people who will move the discipline of OR/MS forward. This is the “altruistic” reason to attend TEC.”
Mihai added that he was reminded of a Richard Feynman quote from “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman.” The full quote with context is available at http://www.math.utah.edu/~yplee/teaching/feynman.html, but here’s a portion of it:

“If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
“The questions asked by students are often the source of new research ideas. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the research question I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to consider, but they remind me of a research problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.
“So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.”
In a recent correspondence, INFORMS Member-in-Chief Ed Kaplan also shared his thoughts on the role education and INFORM-ED play in our institute. Ed responded in the following way:

“Few things are more important to the health of our field – and to INFORMS – than continuing to attract and support talented students, and providing them with the best educational experience possible. INFORM-ED is a critical part of our activities in this regard. For example, INFORM-ED supports the publication of the open-access journal INFORMS Transactions on Education, which provides all manner of pedagogical discussions and classroom discussions oriented towards teaching operations research and analytics. Another example is the INFORMS Case Competition, which promotes the development of new teaching cases and associated instructional materials. The Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium offers new instructors the opportunity to learn from experts regarding effective organization and presentation.
“It is so critical for a small field like ours to intellectually reproduce. Doing so requires attracting excellent students to be sure, but ensuring that such students are turned on is important for retention whether said students turn to the academic or practice worlds (or both). Please consider participating in INFORM-ED – it could be a turn-on for you too!”
I encourage you to join INFORM-ED when you renew your INFORMS membership for 2017. But don’t stop there. Volunteer to review articles for INFORMS Transactions on Education or serve as a judge for the Case and Teaching Materials Competition. Submit an article to INFORMS Transactions on Education or a case to the Case and Teaching Materials Competition. Register for the 2017 Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium (a full day of short workshops on strategies for improving OR/MS education – completely underwritten by INFORMS). Write an “Issues in Education” column for OR/MS Today.
If you are working in private industry or for a government agency, identify applications of OR/MS within your organization – successes, failures and everything in-between – and work with an instructor to turn these applications into teaching cases that can then be published and made freely available by INFORMS Transactions on Education (this is something our colleagues in developing nations greatly appreciate). Get involved in some way – the continued growth of our discipline and our institute depends on it.

James J. Cochran (jcochran@cba.ua.edu) is a professor of applied statistics and Rogers-Spivey Faculty Fellow in the Department of Information Systems, Statistics and Management Science, Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration, University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. A longtime, active member of INFORMS and INFORMS-ED, Professor Cochran received the 2008 INFORMS Prize for the Teaching of OR/MS Practice. In addition, he received the Mu Sigma Rho Statistical Education Award (2010), was named a Fellow of the American Statistical Association (2011), and was a recipient of the American Statistical Association’s Founders Award (2014) and the Karl E. Peace Award for outstanding statistical contributions for the betterment of society (2015).