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  • Linke Potgieter

Teaching operations research to school learners

Today I asked my colleague Lieschen Venter to introduce our MathOR learners (the group of school learners that we teach extra mathematics classes to at our university department) to one of the operations research techniques that she teaches in her university course.

She decided on the transportation problem in operations research where the objective is to minimise the total cost of distributing a product from a number of origins to a number of destinations. This problem is introduced to second year students at university, but we thought the algorithmic solution approach might be possible to introduce at secondary school level, so we gave it a try, and it worked! Lesson learned today:

Don't underestimate a child's ability to do math.

The Grade 9 and 10 learners easily managed to implement the north west corner method to find initial feasible solutions, and then applied the stepping-stone method to find optimal solutions with some help from Annelie and Lieschen, who did an excellent job at pitching the problem at a level that they could relate to. The learners enjoyed the exposure, and even asked for more.

The experience made me realise again that we should show more real world applications of mathematics (in our case operations research) to learners at an earlier age, in their language, at a level that they can relate to, instead of just focussing on building foundational skills.

"How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent from experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality."

- Albert Einstein -

Teaching mathematics at school level should be a trade-off between showing them the beauty of the abstract, but also showing them the possibility of applying the abstract to reality. Understanding the value of applying the abstract in real world problems is inspiring these kids to enhance their mathematical skills - because the connection between their skills and making a difference in the world around them is clearer.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if we don't show the beholder beautiful things, how will they decide if it is beautiful?

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