Working for modern math

Wayne State professor, Seaholm teacher advocate for future of math education

By: Alex Tekip | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 5, 2016

BIRMINGHAM — One Seaholm High School teacher is changing the “when will I use this?” mentality that students often have in math classes.

Thad Wilhelm, head of the school’s department of mathematics, worked with Kenneth Chelst, director of engineering management and professor of operations research at Wayne State University, to develop an operations research course for high school classrooms. The course aims to approach math as a way to solve practical problems beyond the textbook, such as how to find the best cellphone wireless plan or how to make an optimized schedule for a workplace.

“It gives students a view of how math is actually used in the real world, because we teach students for 12 years, and they get pretty good at symbolic manipulation, and they’re good at textbook kinds of math, but if you ask them what it’s for, why are they studying math, they don’t really have a good answer,” said Wilhelm. “This gives them a reason why math is useful and relevant in the world outside of school.”

The high school operations research course is in its fourth year at Seaholm and is also open to Groves High School students. Wilhelm ushered the class into the approval process through school administration, and also worked to get it approved by the NCAA as a recognized mathematics course to fulfill the requirements of those interested in pursuing collegiate sports.

On March 29, Wilhelm, along with the Seaholm Math Club, hosted an event called “Putting Math to Work” — the first in a series of talks from professionals in math-based careers — in which Chelst explained his analytics-based approach to the discipline and its use at the high school level.

Chelst, who has a P.h.D in operations research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  and has helped major corporations such as Ford Motor Co. and IBM implement analytics programs, said he considers himself a missionary for modernized math education.

“My main strategy has been (that) every teacher I reach will teach 100 kids that year, and maybe 1,000 over their career,”  he said. “I almost never talk to high school kids directly. I only talk to their teachers in hopes of motivating them to use some of the examples, some of the concepts in their class.”

In his talk, Chelst said operations research students learn how to analyze data using Microsoft Excel. The dreaded word problems involving flagpole shadows, rates of travel between two cities, and speeds of filling a bathtub are tossed in favor of using computerized models to produce results that make students think critically about how to optimize data.

“It’s a different experience,” he said.

Teachers in the audience were interested in the potential of operations research and analytics to change the classroom. Parents were interested in how their children can pursue this critical math at a higher level.

Chelst said the best way for students to pursue operations research is to search for schools that offer programs or classes in industrial engineering at the undergraduate level and analytics-focused degrees at the graduate level. He mentioned Wayne State and the University of Michigan as two in-state leaders in the field.

Chelst said analytics and operations research are some of the fastest-growing job fields today and can be applied to a variety of interests. For example, Ford now has a chief data and analytics officer; Henry Ford Health System has a vice president of performance analytics and improvement; and the Detroit Tigers increased staffing in their scouting and analytics department in November 2015.

Wilhelm said knowing that  an operations research class in high school could propel students to pursue a career where they implement what they learned has been rewarding for him and those in his class.

“The reaction has been very positive, overwhelming, because often it is the very first time that they actually get to see a real-world use for mathematics, and they’ve been studying it for so long, but here they get to see how it’s really being put to use and how they can use it to solve real problems,” he said.