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New Electives Deepen Operations Research Offerings

DewaldAn initiative to broaden the focus of mathematics education at VMI that began nine years ago has continued this fall with the addition of two courses in operations research to the regular curriculum.

“Operations research is really the science of doing better,” explained Col. Lee Dewald, who has been studying operations research since the mid-1970s and now teaches both new classes. As such, he explained, operations research is widely used by businesses, governments, and the military. In all three of those entities, the goal of operations research is the same: to make decisions that will lead to the wisest allocation of resources. Dewald described operations research as “a way of doing mathematical modeling – applying quantitative methods to decisions or estimations.”

Dewald, who received a doctorate in operations research in 1985, taught one of the now-permanent courses, Nonlinear Optimization, in the fall. He’s currently teaching the other newly permanent elective, Introduction to Stochastic Processes. He was quick to explain that while both courses have been made part of the regular curriculum this year, they have been taught as topics courses, or special electives, twice in the past few years.

And while Dewald’s background in operations research goes back over four decades, VMI’s decision to add classes in that discipline began less than 10 years ago. In 2004, Dewald began a five-year term as department chair, he looked at his department’s track record and found that the math department had produced 31 graduates in 11 years. Immediately, he knew that mathematics education at VMI could offer cadets much more in terms of career preparation.

“Our program was basically borderline ineffective,” said Dewald, who explained that the old program was designed to produce math teachers or math professors. Dewald and other members of the department quickly began an overhaul of the curriculum, with an emphasis on using math in the real world. Offerings in the new Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science were fully implemented by 2010 – and the department now boasts an enrollment of over 50 majors.

Basic coursework in operations research – including one course in linear optimization, two courses in probability and statistics and one course in computational mathematics – is now required for math majors. The new, now-permanent electives are not required, but rather offered for those cadets wishing to deepen and broaden their knowledge in the field of operations research.

According to Dewald, many of the cadets choosing to take the now-permanent electives are headed for graduate school. In the future, that path may become easier, as VMI is in the process of investigating partnerships with graduate schools offering programs in operations research.

Dewald explained that the now-permanent courses involve graduate-level work. “I don’t quite teach them at that high of a level, but the textbooks I use are graduate level,” he added.

Many of the cadets not heading directly to graduate school will commission in the armed services first – and that’s a path that Dewald, a retired Army officer, strongly encourages. In many cases, he noted, cadets who commission will find themselves in graduate school within a few years, with the U.S. government picking up the tab.

“All of the branches of the service have officers who work in the field of operations research,” Dewald commented.

For Dewald, the new operations research courses are simply a part of preparing mathematicians whose options after VMI are much broader than teaching.

“[The cadets] now see that there’s more to being a mathematician than being a college math professor,” he commented. “There are interesting and important and valuable jobs out there, whether you go into the military or go into government or go into business. There are tons of jobs available if you have the right background in mathematics.”

In addition to operations research, the department offers coursework in probability and statistics, differential equations, and computational mathematics. Beginning in the fall of 2013, the current department will be split into the Department of Applied Mathematics and the Department of Computer and Information Science.

By Mary Price
IR February 2013