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Taking Operational Research into schools

By Dominic Finn - Posted on 17 January 2018

Dominic Finn of Strathclyde Business School's Management Science department, talks about his experience of taking Operational Research (OR) into local schools.

Armed with a board game, a set of slides, and a dream, I arrived at an Airdrie Primary School, ready to teach. Decision making theorists might have to revert to picking through entrails to establish why I initially agreed to take part in the OR in Schools programme. However if we’re looking for success criteria: I’m glad I did it, I hope those involved found it useful, I learned something useful, it was fun and I’ll be doing it again next time round.

Improving the numerical and conceptual skills of school age children is a policy aim with which few would disagree. The 'OR in Schools' programme wants to increase awareness of Operational Research, but has quite sensibly associated itself with the STEM agenda. It was a STEM initiative which attracted the primary and secondary schools in Airdrie I arrived at in mid-September. The “Maths Week” in Lanarkshire was the setting of a wide range of alternative learning activities designed to show where maths can take us, and provide a change to more traditional teaching.

Three sessions were planned for my day in Airdrie. Two of them at Clarkston Primary School, with 10-12 year olds and an afternoon with the S3s at Caldervale High School who were about 14. At Strathclyde my teaching experience is with Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Executive Education. I have helped out at my own children’s primary school before. Two particular events sprang to mind. Cooking Indian food with 6 year olds, and attempting a “Facilitation” session to help a class decide what they wanted to do on their last day of term. The key learning points from these related to location of sharp knives, appropriate use of chilli, and how long an adult should speak for while kids are sitting on a floor. I doubted the first two would be of much relevance, but I was conscious of making sure there was a steady flow of activity to interrupt my potential meanderings.

I wouldn’t want to build a theory around a few observations of school level and tertiary level teaching but there seemed to be some similarities. It is a joy when you sense that a student has learned something new, regardless of age. Play is a teaching strategy which is in vogue at the moment too. A teacher also has to take notice of physical resources and constraints. The primary school sessions took place in a gym/multi use hall: lots of space and kids sitting on the floor. Perhaps we could try a play session “on the floor” at the next conference and consider its impact on engagement and learning. I think it has much to commend it. The secondary school students were more traditionally placed at desks with seats.

One item to note was that all the children in all the age groups were not distracted with mobile phones. Compared to a recent seminar where I suspected a post-graduate student of actively buying shoes online, the pupils were polite and attentive, and I commend them and their teachers for creating a positive learning environment which at least postpones online purchasing decisions!

Online shopping did make an appearance in the day as the session I was presenting was about algorithms. The idea was to play a careers “board game” to introduce some Maths and OR based careers, then to use the instructions for the board game as a way to design a flow chart of instructions. From there, we made the link between flow charts and algorithms. The game went down well with the younger pupils. And the older ones enjoyed it too although we had to pretend we were playing it ironically of course…

Most of the pupils could assemble some sort of flowchart and some picked up the idea of algorithms too. I had more time with the older pupils and took this time for them to write their own flowcharts for routines they are familiar with: (not) getting up in the morning and shopping trips seemed popular choices. The plentiful role of algorithms in an online shopping experience was discussed and that was the end of the session, bar distributing some freebies. The learning packs - and freebies of course including OR society rulers - were managed by Sophie at the OR Society, and there is lots of support available for anyone who’s interested.

The OR Society rulers may last for thousands of years (that is the 6 inch measuring devices, not the organising committee) but one hopes that this small addition to the variety of teaching in these two schools has had some impact too. The pupils seemed engaged. I’d recommend it as a learning experience for tertiary level educators.

It was also just good fun, and I’m signed up to do another session later in the year. The opportunity/threat of delivering a session at my own children’s high school is a useful bargaining chip in domestic negotiations all of sorts. Perhaps, regardless of the rational benefits that accrued, that is the reason I said yes in the first place!




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