Innovative Teaching in ISyE
The extraordinary talent of faculty are bringing out the next generation of industrial and systems engineers.
Paper boats, juggling balls, fresh fruit: These are a few of the tactile objects that assistant professor Nick Arnosti uses to engage students in his elective on Allocating Public Resources. Arnosti, whose research focuses on allocation of public goods, believes that making allocation concepts concrete helps students understand them in a way that no book or traditional lecture can.
On the first day of class, Arnosti brought in four pieces of fresh fruit—an apple, a banana, a cantaloupe, and a durian—and helped students brainstorm different criteria for awarding each fruit to classmates who needed or wanted it most. “What does it mean to be efficient, if I want to give it away efficiently? What does it mean to be fair? When we’re designing social systems we need to ask, does it satisfy this property? That property?
“It’s an engineering class, rather than a public policy class, because we’re going to take these concepts, these goals we might have, and we’re going to turn them into mathematical definitions,” Arnosti says. “Whenever I introduce a new algorithm, I try to have a concrete, hands-on walkthrough.”
Arnosti likes to challenge himself by learning new hobbies and skills. Recently he taught himself juggling, and he decided to give away his set of juggling balls to illustrate concepts of value and fairness in auctioning goods. Arnosti showed his students how to fold paper into origami boats, then asked them how many boats they’d be willing to make to “win” the juggling balls. (For the record, the highest bid was 75.)
Such activities are one reason Arnosti has “a strong preference for in-person learning.” While recognizing that Covid continues to necessitate staying home sometimes, “I do think it’s more effective for students to come to class whenever possible, and I think that helps create a vibrant class experience.” Students seem to agree; attendance stayed high throughout the year.
He also likes giving small but frequent homework assignments with—and this is something he learned from his spouse, a math teacher—prompt feedback. That quick feedback is key to reinforcing the concepts covered in class, Arnosti says. Right away, “students can see, ‘Oh, I got question 2 wrong – do I understand why, or not?’” before attention moves on to the next concept.
Arnosti finds it rewarding when students try to apply concepts they’ve explored in class to contexts from their day-to-day lives: identifying weaknesses in the U’s course registration system, or allocating scarce parking spots outside a fraternity house. “Seeing these sorts of connections being drawn, that’s very gratifying.”
Mimi Wong calls herself an “accidental” project manager. But after decades of experience in business—first with Target, and now as a consultant—there’s nothing accidental about the approach Wong brings to the classroom.
Wong, who serves as an adjunct professor both in ISyE and the Carlson School of Management, started her undergrad career as a premed student, later switching to finance. She worked for a while as a financial analyst before eventually learning project management on the job at Target. “My path has been . . . meandering,” Wong chuckles.
“Back when I started, people didn’t take classes in project management. I’m a big believer that it’s a discipline,” Wong says. One of Wong’s strengths as a teacher is her experience where the rubber meets the road. Since teaching her first ISyE class in 2014, Wong has worked creatively to simulate that real-world experience with her students.
One way she does that is by “flipping” her class: instead of using in-class time to lecture, Wong has her students read/watch lectures at home. Then the “homework” takes place in class, with students working together to solve project management problems. “Students are responsible for the content [outside of class]. And then in class we have these roundtables where we, as a group, solve the problem or scenario.”
The approach “makes everybody accountable for participating, rather than the three people in [any class] who always answer all the questions,” Wong says. It also comes closer to replicating what project management is really like in the workplace: “In project management, you have to learn to work with different people—and be productive very quickly.” She designed her fall class for ISyE seniors to help prep them for their capstone, and it revolves around helping a real-life sponsor—a business or nonprofit—solve a real-life problem.
“They get the whole life cycle, from proposing to ending a project”—and the execution stage usually involves trial, error, and revision. “That’s real life,” Wong says. And it requires students to wrestle with the ambiguity that’s inherent in any project manager’s job.
“It’s sort of like learning how to fly an airplane: you don’t learn project management just by reading a book. Saying, ‘because I read the book, I’m now a qualified pilot’ . . . you actually have to do it.”
Jeremiah Johnson’s ISyE teaching career began when he started offering a free, one-day lean engineering seminar on campus. Legos and complimentary pizza were starring attractions.
The seminar proved wildly popular—and not just because everyone loves pizza. “It spurred the discussion of, maybe this should be a real class,” Johnson recalls. Five years ago, it did. Now the senior consultant manager at Boston Scientific and longest-serving member of ISyE’s advisory board is also a popular adjunct professor in the department.
Lean engineering is a holistic approach that aims to improve efficiency and quality through simplification and waste reduction across all facets of an organization. “What I love about [Lean] is that it engages people —everybody is involved in solving problems. The business results that lean can achieve are incredible, but what gets me excited is what it does for the employees—it reduces stress, improves safety, and provides the foundation for an innovative work culture. You can’t have innovation if you don’t have time to innovate and you are stressed!”
Johnson and his students use Legos to simulate how Lean principles and tools drive enhancements. “Using Legos, the students can feel the improvements throughout the semester,” he says. “Each time we apply new tools, they apply the tools with the Legos and really feel the results. It’s a better way to learn than me just telling you about it.”
Speaking of experience: Johnson brings lots of anecdotes from the workplace into his classroom, one advantage an adjunct professor can have over a longtime academic. “I’ll tell you stories where I screwed up—‘here’s what not to do,’ or ‘hey, when you’re rolling this out, be careful; this is what can go wrong,” he says. “I really try to focus on the people side of Lean, the tools aren’t that hard to learn, the challenge lies in implementing them successfully.”
Johnson loves mentoring, but also learning from the students. “I really enjoy the students; I love working with people early in their career journey. They’re fun to mentor but I also learn a great deal from them. It’s a blast.”
Over the years, Johnson has recruited many of them at Boston Scientific. He enjoys hearing from students in their first job, wherever they may be. “They’ll write, ‘Hey, this methodology really works!’ It’s really fun.”
Unsurprisingly, given the subject of his class, Johnson has refined the class a bit each year he’s taught it. He says he’s “using the current best methodology—but if it doesn’t change next year, we’re not improving,” he says. “As a continuous improvement practitioner, it’s important to ‘check and adjust’ your approach. I [want to] make sure the students get as much as they can from my short semester with them.”