Giving students an early introduction to Operations Research

There are not a lot of high school students who know what Operations Research is. Mark Lewis and David Shmoys are doing their best this summer to change that.

Lewis, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Engineering and Director of the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE) at Cornell, and Shmoys, the Laibe/Acheson Professor of Business Management and Leadership Studies, have a combined 50 years experience teaching the theory and practice of operations engineering.

If anyone can convey the excitement, beauty, and sheer usefulness of mathematical modeling, it is them.

Lewis was a key part of the 2022 CATALYST program this year, where he got to work with more than 50 high school students. CATALYST Academy is a one-week program for rising high school juniors and seniors from underrepresented backgrounds who want to learn more about engineering. To help the students understand the concerns and scope of OR, Lewis presented them with an actual operations problem facing a large national pharmacy chain and then walked them through a simulation and the modeling tools professionals would use to solve the problem.

“This is a part of a larger campaign to improve the understanding of, (and appreciation for), the applicability of the mathematical modeling tools we use to spark improved decision-making,” Lewis said. During their week at CATALYST, the students were exposed to the tools at the core of Operations Research and along the way, they learned the difference between open (design) and closed (dynamic) loop control.

Professor David Shmoys teaches a summer section of ENGR 1101Shmoys taught ENGR 1101 (Engineering Applications of ORIE) to students in the Pre-Collegiate Summer Scholars Program. This invitation-only program includes workshops, guest lectures, social and cultural activities, and summer session courses. “Many of these students show up with only a vague understanding at best of what operations research is,” Shmoys said. He views the class as a win-win situation: the students, who are all incoming first-year Cornell Engineering students, get an academic jump on their first-year course load, and ORIE benefits by having a larger percentage of the first-year class know what operations research practitioners actually do.

Shmoys taught this course for six weeks and gave the students a detailed introduction to the problems and methods of OR while giving them a taste of the mathematical modeling, algorithms, and software used to solve problems in realms as diverse as ride-hailing services, efficient deployment of ambulance services around metropolitan areas, supply chain management, university class and final exam scheduling, and proper medical staffing levels for walk-in clinics, to name just a few.

Both Lewis and Shmoys were excited about the opportunity this summer to spread the word about operations research. And being firm believers in the value of good data, you can bet both will be paying attention to these students in the coming years to see how many affiliate with ORIE.

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