Faculty Showcase: Optimization Pentathlon!

Faculty Showcase: Optimization Pentathlon!

David Yates, from the Department of Business Information & Analytics in the Daniels College of Business, shares the results of his recent OneNewThing Mini-Grant from the OTL.

What were you trying to change or solve?Yates_ONT

Optimization Modeling (INFO 3440) is a business information and analytics class that teaches students a variety of techniques and models to optimize some desired outcome.  Because the course is so focused on methods, it is sometimes hard for students to conceptualize the ‘why’ we would optimize (e.g., what problems does it help us solve) as opposed to the ‘how’ we optimize (e.g. the various techniques and software applications used in optimization).

In Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning, Davis and Arend (2013) explain different ways of learning, some of which I felt were missing from my class.  As a result, students had few opportunities to reinforce the ‘why’ optimize, making their conceptualization harder even as I tried to explain the methods more vigorously.

What did you do?

I created a series of five optimization challenges that I termed the “Optimization Pentathlon.”  These were small group competitions that had each student group competing to obtain the ‘best’ answer.  In the end, however, the only way to achieve the best answer was to apply an optimization technique – thus students gave the problems a try themselves, learned how hard they were, and then learned how to use the optimization techniques.  The five events were:

#1: ‘The Monument’: Using a series of clues gathered via campus scavenger hunt and put into a computer program, solve a puzzle that indicates the name of a famous monument.  Students had to decide how to optimally use their group members – should they all stick together, send runners, dedicate someone to the computer program, ???

#2: ‘The M&M Challenge’: Some group members are assigned a quantity of three different colors of M&M candies.  Using a reward and penalty system the group must quickly figure out the optimal way to exchange M&Ms with other group members that incurs the smallest total penalty.

#3: ‘Who’s Favorite Candy’: Fifteen faculty and staff members ranked fifteen different candy bars in order of their individual preference.  The groups’ task was to assign each faculty and staff member a specific candy bar such that the overall preference was maximized and each candy bar and each faculty staff member was assigned only once.  But what happens when everyone wants a Snickers??

#4: ‘The Tale of Two Churros’: Given a map with the location of twenty campus buildings (pictured above), where would be the optimal location to place two churro stands on campus so that the distance between every building and either churro stand was as small as possible?

#5: ‘Kevin Bacon and Two Friends’: A riff on the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game, groups were tasked to pick two actors and identify as many possible links between the two actors and Kevin Bacon, with bonus points for identifying actors that linked all three together.  But who to pick given so many different actors to choose from??

How did it go, and what did you learn?

In an exit survey, the students reported that they found the events to be engaging, enjoyable, challenging and useful.  More importantly, (as hoped) the students recognized the challenges were an alternative method of learning which helped to make the optimization modeling techniques more accessible and representative of tangible, real-world problems.  The challenge aspect of the events made students take the activities more seriously.  I learned that students found the tasks confusing at times.  The tasks were designed that way so students would think critically about what they were doing, yet a good lesson learned was to make the tasks challenging yet spend more time explaining them before commencing.

Overall, the challenges were a great way to make the material relevant and help students conceptualize why optimization is valuable. The challenges involved a different learning technique which appealed to many students, and best of all they were fun and got the students out of their seats and solving problems as a group.

By the way – the best place to put two Churro stands?  According to our model, we would place them in Sturm Hall and Olin Hall!

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