Author: Dr. Ruonan Zhang, Assistant Professor, Department of Applied Mathematics, School of Mathematics and Physics.
Mathematics usually impresses people with theoretical knowledge points and rigorous proof, but operational research (OR), as an important subject of math, has its absolute superiority in real applications, and this makes MTH203: Introduction to Operational Research very unique among the list of MTH modules. We aim to provide students with a different learning experience, broaden their views on applying math and stimulate interest to pursue further studies in the area. Considering the size of the module (e.g., 415, 440 for the previous two academic years), students’ mixed backgrounds (financial mathematics and applied mathematics programme), and heavy syllabus, it is impractical to organize the classes by seminars or individual projects. In order to reach a good balance between knowledge point-based and project-based teaching, setting up appropriate assessments become our primary goal.
With expertise in OR for over 15 years in both academic and business environments, I take strong responsibility to promote the area and equip my students with the necessary skill sets. Besides covering technical details that math students are used to focusing on, I have devoted sustainable efforts to emphasizing applications, particularly, how OR projects are scoped and accomplished in practice. There are over 10 “OR showcase” sessions, each about 10 minutes in my classes throughout the semester, in which I present my past OR projects with real industrial partners in different business sectors, the OR methodology used, and the soft skills needed to manage the project, etc. To make students quickly implement these ideas, almost all the questions in lecture notes and coursework are practice-based and many are open-ended. Then they can be aware that math results are not necessarily to be all “correct or incorrect”, but they could be presented in various ways to display multiple perspectives and fit people’s needs. To make the classes more appealing, I have invited around 8 guest speakers per semester, for instance, my current/previous FYP and SURF students to give talks. By doing so, on one side, students understand better how undergraduate-level OR projects are conducted and get more motivated by watching their peers’ performances. On the other side, FYP and SURF students take this as a special opportunity to promote their projects, practice their presentation skills in front of a big audience (which is hardly provided by other modules) and receive valuable feedback.
“OR festival” is a pioneering event I have established since 2021. It originates from the coursework of MTH203 which has been practiced for 5 years. To maximize students’ initiatives, we do not set fixed topics or formats. Students are grouped by themselves (with an average size of 5) and choose among several pathways we offer to cover different skill sets. For example, “OR implementation using computer programming” might be favored by students who like hard-core technology, while the ones good at OR analysis and presentations may prefer “Modeling and analysis”. Along the pathway, each group explores an application background and works on the self-designed project. Reports, group presentations, and peer reviews are all involved in the grading process. The presentation part has then been arranged as a one-day event open to all students and staff who are willing to join. In 2021, we had 83 groups presenting their work and addressing questions to the judges and a broad audience. Six colleagues have been invited to participate and be the judges. This is a distinct practice in the math cluster and is supported by my department. OR festival becomes a budgeted event since then and we expect to make it more attractive by setting more creative functionalities.
Blended Education Mode – Some Challenges and Ideas
With the intervention of Covid-19, we have been urged to justify our modes of teaching. After a few rounds of the switch, it is finally realized that developing a set of adjustable methods to fit either online or onsite (i.e. blended) mode would be more adequate. This brings two main types of challenges to us: firstly, how to keep effective module delivery. In MTH203, traditional methods such as following notes and tutorial sheets still work, while activities related to engagement have to be modified to fit in online/blended education. For example, in 2020 and 2022, I invited speakers in the OR showcase to present via BBB. They were then recommended to communicate with students on the class chat board or leave the WeChat barcode on their slides; In OR festival 2022, we collected 81 recorded videos, which prepared students better and made them happy to be less interrupted. Secondly, how to design assessments that fit the online setting and the nature of the subjects. For a Year 3 applied subject, such as Operational Research, we intend not to leave pressure on students to memorize formulas and conduct tedious calculations. We design to build them to be more responsive and critical. Therefore, exams are set as open-book and students could use computers (e.g., search engine, Excel, Matlab) at their convenience. What’s more, web links for some special solvers such as queuing calculator, random number generator, probability calculator, polynomial equation solver, etc. are directly given for students' reference. Last but not least, we designed open-ended questions to encourage diversified answers, which could largely restrain potential cheating cases. As seen from the scripts and feedback, it turns out that our design has been well adapted and supported by students.