Applied mathematics may be underrepresented

Years ago when I was teaching at a small liberal arts school, Albion College, Albion MI, I decided to venture out and teach an Operations Research course (piece of advice, NEVER start an OR course with linear programming as it is a quagmire of opportunities from which you can never extricate the class). As someone with a PhD in Noetherian Ring Theory I was exploring various areas of mathematics I had never seen or even heard of before and a good way to learn about a subject was to teach a course, I always thought. 

This was in the days before Internet, even before BitNet (anyone remember BitNet?),  and so I wrote letters (using an IBM Selectric, ribbon, and paper, with envelope and stamps) to various places, seeking to learn more about Operations Research courses and teaching materials. Well, somehow word got out about me doing this at a liberal arts college and I got an invitation to the Operations Research Society of America national meeting. They wanted me to be on a panel of "underrepresenteds" and given the look of "what are you doing?" from colleagues at other nearby liberal arts college I began to realize what "underrepresented" might mean.  

Well, when I got to the conference and went early to the panel room I learned what "underrepresented" really meant with one exception. It meant African-American or Black faculty and I was unique on the panel as a white colleague. 

However, I realized the  issues these colleagues faced in their desires to teach Operations Research at their schools, and in some cases anywhere, were quite different and more challenging than what I was experiencing. This was in the mid-1970's. It was an eye-opening panel for me and I came to understand what "underrepresented" really meant and that I was not AN underrepresented faculty. Rather the teaching of Operations Research in a small, liberal arts college was underrepresented, and ORSA was encouraging and supporting all kinds of underrepresenteds in that panel. I felt very fortunate because of my attempts to reach outside my mathematical comfort zone.

Two other stories:

(1) I later found it best to start my Operations Course using queing theory and building the models for stochastic processes starting with difference equations and moving in the limit to differential equations and then down to steady state equations to get any reasonable results. I loved that my two new interests - differential equations and queing theory were blending in support of each other.

(2) Years later when teaching an OR course we were doing the classic oil refinery model out of the classic text, Linear Optimization, by Allen Spivey of The University of Michigan. We were beginning to identify the variables in the problem after we had discussed the nature of the problem. They were into it, they were arguing, they were taking the chalk from one another and crossing out the other students' work, appealing to the class to accept their variables. All of a sudden - poof - the lights went out, and we were in a building with no windows. Being the good prof and caring for the safety of my students I said we had better leave and go outside. "Why?" they said. "We're in the middle of this and we can get through it." So we did. It was simply amazing to me that the modeling aspect of a problem so intrigued them that they wanted to continue in those circumstances. That told me something about engaging students in modeling.



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