ISSUES IN EDUCATION
My experience making a BLOSSOMS video
As a high school student, I was highly enthusiastic about mathematics. For me, math was by far the most interesting and thought-provoking topic. Nothing could excite me more than figuring out a complicated math problem or approaching it with a fresh and different perspective. However, there were times when I could not help but think “seriously, when will we ever use this in the real world?”
The struggle to find relevance in math is not specific to students who are not fond of mathematics or those who are not good at it. Creating a mindset that labels math an irrelevant topic to real-world problems can be what keeps students away from STEM majors in universities.
In his article in OR/MS Today , Professor Richard Larson explained how exposing high school students to OR/MS concepts and applications in real-world contexts can get them excited about mathematics. This motivated Dr. Larson to launch an initiative at MIT called BLOSSOMS (Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies) (http://blossoms.mit.edu). The BLOSSOMS website is a free repository of interactive video lessons that teachers can use in mathematics and science classes in high schools around the globe. You can find more information about the goals of BLOSSOMS and examples of these video lessons in  and .
I am in a Ph.D. program in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Wayne State University. My advisor, Dr. Kenneth Chelst, a professor of operations research, has a passion for mathematics education K-12. He was co-PI on an NSF grant for Project MINDSET  that led to the development of a two-semester math curriculum and textbooks for high school mathematics. One course focuses on deterministic modeling whereas the other course develops probabilistic decision modeling skills. Students are often surprised to learn that while the real-world problems can be difficult to address, in many cases, their analysis depends on mathematics that they have already learned in high school. You can learn more about these course materials at http://www.appliedmathpractices.com/.
Working with Dr. Chelst helped me recall my own challenges as a high school student and gave me the opportunity to think about what I can do to make an even small difference in the way math is taught in high schools.
In 2013, I heard about BLOSSOMS for the first time. My advisor and I watched some of the videos on their website under the mathematics topic. Each lesson presented a topic from an unusual and interesting viewpoint. The videos also suggested interesting and thought-provoking classroom activities during the breaks. We thought it would be a good idea to make a video about multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM). We discussed the idea with Professor Larson, and he was very supportive. He made great suggestions about how to approach the topic to make it more engaging for a math class.
The first milestone in making the video is writing the concept of the lesson and submitting it to BLOSSOMS for review. As we know, MCDM is all about making choices between different alternatives when the decision-maker has multiple criteria in mind. We had to come up with a decision-making context that would be interesting to senior high school students. Then I remembered one of my most important concerns when I went to college: choosing roommates. Therefore, we developed a concept to teach MCDM by presenting an example of a college student choosing a roommate.
Once the concept was approved by BLOSSOMS, we started writing scripts. Most of the conversations happen between two college girlfriends. Samantha is the one who is looking for a roommate and has narrowed down her choices to four candidates. Maddie, who knows the MCDM methodology, offers to help Samantha define her objectives and measures and finally choose the best roommate based on her preferences.
The main difference between this lesson and other typical math lessons is that it is a mix of discrete math and open-ended discussions. The activities of this lesson ask students to apply MCDM from Samantha’s perspective. Students are also encouraged to create their own weights, as well as explore other objectives and measures of interest to them. With their own weights, students learn there is more than one right answer to each question. BLOSSOMS videos such as ours lend themselves to great class discussions.
Once the scripts were approved by BLOSSOMS, we reached out to a professional studio at Wayne State to help us make the video. We recruited a group of acting students from the theater department to play the roles of Samantha and the roommate candidates. I played the role of Maddie, the MCDM expert. The whole experience of developing the lesson, writing the scripts and acting in an educational video was incredible and unique. The final video was uploaded on BLOSSOMS website in April 2015.
If you think you have a good idea that can be beneficial to high school classes, discuss it with the BLOSSOMS group. We all have busy lives inside and outside of work, and many of us may not have the experience of producing a video, but this does not mean that it is impossible. When I started working on our BLOSSOMS lesson, I was working on three different, intense research projects. Thus, it took us almost two years to get from the initial idea to the final edited video, but eventually we made it happen with a team of three. Just remember that a simple idea can influence the quality of education of young people around the world.
Mahdokht Kalantari (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Ph.D. student in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Wayne State University.
1. Larson, R., 2015, “MIT BLOSSOMS – five years later,” OR/MS Today, Vol.42, No.2.
2. Larson, R. C., Murray, M. E., 2008, “Open Educational Resources for Blended Learning in High Schools: Overcoming Impediments in Developing Countries,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 85-103.
3. Larson, R., 2010, “O.R. ‘BLOSSOMS’ in high schools,” OR/MS Today, Vol. 37, No. 5.
4. 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.