Friday, January 30, 2015

Lessons in teaching: Fall 2014 edition - Using the news

I had started using news articles to illustrate class concepts last year, but this year I started doing so from the very beginning and made it a standing part of the class to do this once a week in both of my classes last semester.  Of course, taking 10~30 minutes a week out of class came at a price.  In both cases it meant a chapter not being covered. And I pointed this out to the class when time came for course evaluations.

Every week I would identify news articles, magazine articles, or blog posts to discuss in class.  (or sometimes it was a historical case).  The discussion would always open by evaluating the article through a standard technique.  In my decision analysis class it was either generating a value tree or a decision tree.  In my simulation class it was generally generating an event diagram (i.e. a white board exercise).

The cases included the international and domestic (U.S.) handling of the Ebola outbreak, health care provider reactions to the rise of independent urgent care clinics, potential expansion of a light manufacturer, pulling a goalie in hockey in the final minutes, flu vaccinations, Corporate restructuring, the construction of super containerships, NASA Commercial Space initiatives, waving a (baseball) runner home, handling of death threats (Gamergate), Space Shuttle Challenger launch decision, automation of warehouses and manufacturing, delivery of disaster response services, and hub and spoke airline operations.

For the discussions themselves, it was a great way of getting students interested. Because of the wide range of topics, international, domestic US, health, industrial, sports, space, different people tended to get into different discussion topics, so across all of the cases, a very large portion of the classes contributed to the conversation at some point.

The other big benefit of the cases was to reinforce the modeling aspect of both classes. For decision models this meant many opportunities to consider the value tree and decision trees, even as we moved to other techniques and topics. For simulation, this was the chance to work on modeling while the course focused on analytical and statistical methods.  Even for those who did not take part in the class discussion, there were a few discussions that I think were particularly memorable.

One unexpected benefit was that I had an opportunity to engage in give and take.  Once we got past the first few sessions, we were comfortable with me questioning some of the responses, or asking to go a little deeper than the first answer.  (without scaring the student into a shell) Students also started asking questions, so we occasionally got a real discussion going.

Sometimes it was fairly light and even entertaining discussion (sports were good for that). And there were times that it went very serious (we looked at the decision not to provide protection from threats of mass murder with plans in Utah with Anita Sarkeesian (meaning it also involved the politics of gender oppression). Ebola was also a big one in September.

So, when compared to the loss of a chapter of coverage, I think that this was a worthwhile direction. The course evaluations commented on how much the students liked using current events as examples of material, and that they felt confident in modeling (which is only one or two chapters in each subject).  Compared to a chapter of material that would probably be forgotten, I'll take the tradeoff.
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