Issues In Education
Time to Update Teaching Cases
By Karl Schmedders and Molly Stephens
Throughout the pages of this magazine, many authors have bemoaned the decline in popularity of management science among incoming students. In fact, the first article printed on the Issues in Education page queried, "How can we 'turn-on' our audiences and make them like OR/MS?"
Many OR/MS instructors have attempted to answer this question by introducing cases into the curriculum. Instructors believe that cases attract students by demonstrating the relevance and success of OR/MS techniques in solving today's real business problems. Students then learn the practical not simply the theoretical side of OR/MS and embrace the field as critical to their future success in business.
Or so instructors hope.
A problem occurs when the cases used to demonstrate the relevance of OR/MS techniques do not reflect today's business problems. Students then view OR/MS as a field full of outdated techniques that should have been retired with the World War II logisticians who first implemented the techniques.
Unfortunately, many progressive instructors have no choice but to use these outdated cases, because cases that reflect today's business problems are quite rare despite numerous calls by members of the OR/MS community for more relevant cases.
Take the generic linear programming case used in many OR/MS introductory classes. A manufacturer often a furniture manufacturer has a limited supply of resources and labor. Students need to determine what products the manufacturer should produce to maximize profit. Certainly, students during the Industrial Revolution would have appreciated the practical decision-making power demonstrated by this linear programming case. But alas, today's students are not likely to become excited by such a case given the fact that the manufacturing business problem has little relevance in today's service-oriented economy.
Need more examples? Take the petroleum blending case that has become quite common in introductory OR/MS classes. Students need to find the best blend of petroleum ingredients to obtain various grades of gasoline. In an age where battery-powered automobiles are becoming a reality, students wonder whether the field is keeping up with the times. Or take the bank teller queueing case that has become common in introductory queueing theory. Students wonder whether instructors are aware that ATMs and Web sites have all but replaced tellers.
Cases used in the teaching of OR/MS techniques need to reflect the changing business environment of today, not only to attract incoming students, but also to protect the field from extinction. OR/MS is a unique field; it applies mathematical truths that do not change to business problems that do change. Without continuously adapting itself to a new business environment, the field risks losing both practitioners and clients, and then disappearing altogether.
So how should the OR/MS community respond to this crisis? Members of the community should make every effort to identify modern business problems that lend themselves to OR/MS solution techniques. Members should then transform those problems into OR/MS cases and disseminate the cases to the entire community.
The modern business world offers a virtual cornucopia of business situations that invite the application of OR/MS techniques. For example, streamlining call centers requires queueing theory; pricing more complex financial instruments, such as derivatives, requires simulation techniques; effectively managing ever-popular mergers between large companies requires project management techniques; minimizing the cost of global overnight shipping requires network analysis; and developing effective advertising strategies using the multitude of new media available requires optimization techniques.
Instructors are in an excellent position to identify modern business problems; they only need to maintain their contacts with the business world. Consulting engagements reveal problems that serve as solid foundations for cases, and project classes yield student project reports that provide useful starting points for the development of cases. Many instructors already consult for businesses or teach project courses, and they have a duty to the OR/MS community to put project notes and reports to good use by developing cases.
But developing new cases is not enough. Instructors have to make the cases available to the community at large. The Web is an excellent medium for distributing cases, and some visionaries have already established Web sites for the distribution of cases. For example, 12 cases developed by Peter Bell of the University of Western Ontario are available at <www.wiley.com/college/informscases>. More cases are needed, however, to provide instructors with the necessary variety to meet students' interests and skill levels. In addition, a steady stream of new cases is needed to supplant obsolete cases.
Finally, developing new cases and making them available to other instructors is ineffective unless instructors actually use new cases in the classroom. The regular adoption of new cases means more preparation for instructors, but the final goals retaining current students, attracting new students and making the OR/MS curriculum relevant to modern education are well worth the effort.
Karl Schmedders is an assistant professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Molly Stephens holds a M.S. degree in Industrial Engineering from Stanford.
OR/MS Today copyright © 2001 by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. All rights reserved.
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