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Operations Research is a useful, interesting and challenging subject.

Blogs are by their nature, personal. Today’s blog is even more personal as I tell of my life with Operations Research and the demise of OR at UC.

Operations Research is a useful, interesting and challenging subject.

I love Operations Research. It was love at first sight, and though I now teach statistics, it is with an attitude strongly shaped by Operations Research.
At school I loved maths. And I was good at it. I captained a team that won the city “Cantamath” competition two years running in the early 1970s. In high school I had a great maths teacher who let me be an assistant to the others in class when I had finished my work. That cemented my desire to be a high-school maths teacher.
I went to university,  intending to become a maths teacher, but unsure about my backup subjects. I took an Economics course, which had six weeks of Operations Research in it. I was sold. This was the subject I had been born for – practical use of numbers to make things better. So I changed my major to Operations Research, and took enough mathematics to still be able to teach at all levels. The lack of numbers and practical application in maths courses above the introductory level left me cold. I added in computer science – and loved programming. My introduction to Statistics was a total mystery, dominated by probability taught through gambling examples, but I managed to get an A anyway.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. I am now at the end of my official operations research career. For twenty years I have been teaching introductory Operations Research and various levels of applied statistics. I completed a PhD thesis on the allocation of resources for the education of students with vision impairment, which used OR methodology and hierarchical linear modeling, though I also dabbled with Data Envelopment Analysis. I have been innovative in my teaching of OR and statistics and won a university teaching award. My videos to teach Excel, Statistics and linear programming have been well-received internationally. I have been fortunate to have worked with many wonderful academics and thousands of mostly wonderful students. (And always wonderful ancillary staff, but don’t get me started on management!)
What I love about Operations Research is the problem-solving practical nature of the work we do. Through student projects I have helped schedule hospital beds and scientific visits to Antarctica. We have helped local government, chicken factories and large trucking firms. We have made things better. When I go to Operations Research conferences I love to hear stories of how OR is helping in less developed countries, and in disaster relief and in so many ways. OR does good. OR makes things better. OR is lots of fun.
So why is my official time with OR over? On Wednesday the Council of the university at which I have been employed voted to close down the Operations Research programme. The university wants to “concentrate” and OR didn’t make the grade, despite two academics taking voluntary redundancy, and a concerted effort to streamline the programme so that it is financially viable. It is the end of an era. In the ultimate irony, the following day I was helping with community outreach and met a student trying to decide what subjects to take. She wanted something that used maths, but wasn’t engineering, and had a people component to it, and possibly was related to business. I told her I knew the perfect subject for her, but that she would not be able to take it our university. I tried to sell her on Operations Management, but I hope I wasn’t too convincing.
So now I will be leaving the university and focussing on bringing statistics to the masses. Statistics is my third love, after mathematics and operations research. I feel a calling to use the operations research way of thinking to help people to understand and enjoy statistics. And thus was born this blog and my future ventures. Statistics is so often taught in a way that confuses people. It is taught by mathematicians who do not understand that most of their students are not. My desire is to help both the teachers and the students so that people understand statistics better. I have not abandoned OR, and we will also be producing materials to help in teaching that. But it might have to step back-stage for a while.
At this sad time I have been enormously buoyed up by comments on my Youtube channel, CreativeHeuristics. Here is a recent one about “Understanding the P-value”

“Thank you for making statistics easy to follow in an entertaining way! You definitely help students like me who have difficulty following the concepts…your method of teaching works perfect for me b/c it helps me get it! I appreciate how your videos simplify the explanations so that its easy to follow. Thank you!”

Comments like this warm the cockles of my heart. It makes it SO worthwhile.
This time is the start of an adventure. I have loved most of my time as an academic, but never really did enough research as I was seduced by the joy of teaching. I am fortunate to have now the opportunity to start a new career after twenty years, and can see the possibilities as well as the hazards. I am enormously fortunate to have a supportive husband and an enthusiastic business partner.
Watch this space!
(And if you want to help us, please buy our apps –  AtMyPace:Statistics and Rogo.)


  1. Ah, I’m sorry. I lost my (first) academic post when the department was reorganized out of existence myself. It wasn’t as sharply defined a focus as operations research (and crossed over with nearly every other department in the school of science, which made sure we stepped on every toe imaginable), but … well, that it’s not personal doesn’t make it feel less personal.

    • Dr Nic says:

      Thanks for your support. As I took voluntary redundancy it is less personal to me, and more of an opportunity. However I suspect I jumped before I was pushed. I just feel sad that such a useful and interesting subject is no longer going to be taught.

  2. I think the deeper irony here is that in this ever complex world we live in, the ability to make decisions based on mathematical, statistical and economical models is surely every present — but wait, that’s OR isn’t it?
    In some small way I feel you angst – as a high school teacher (Science, UK based) we have cut and altered the curriculum to make it more “appealing” to the current clients – without much long term foresight. This has resulted in some excellent colleagues being phased out 10 years ago – but now the curriculum is coming full circle and we are struggling to employ people of similar mental fortitude. As the previous comment — it’s not personal, but sure feels like it, especially if you know deep down that they are making a mistake.
    We seem to focus so much on literacy and numeracy that (here in the UK for sure) we completely miss “statistical literacy” and as a famous advertisement would say “8 out of 10 cats” (based on a survey of 5 cats) believe all statistics they see.
    BTW, if you can find a way of getting teachers to use tools such as t-tests and ANOVA to analyse their data, then I think your “third love” will be a gold mine.
    Keep blogging!

    • Dr Nic says:

      Thanks. It is really nice to know that people are reading what I write. I have plenty more ideas. Funny thing, though – the statistics department at our university don’t use the videos I make! I’m very excited about the future, and will write more about what we are doing when it is a bit further underway. Statistics is so inherently applied that there is great potential for immersive activities.

  3. Vince says:

    Keep in mind your competition udacity.com and coursera.com…
    Good luck!

  4. […] as I thought good thoughts about the role operations research plays in business schools, I read some disconcerting news from the College of of Business and Economics, University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New […]

  5. […] analytical tool when I speak with my former students who work for SMBs. Although recent news of the demise of O.R. at some institutions have been extremely disheartening, students who graduate with good analytical and spreadsheet […]

  6. […] The New Zealand curriculum is divided into eight learning areas, one of which is called Mathematics and Statistics. The separate acknowledgement of Statistics, which I believe occurred in 2007, is indicative of the status which statistics is now afforded in the curriculum. It also sends the message that the subject of statistics is not simply a part of mathematics, but is its own discipline. This has met with approval from statisticians, and mixed reception from mathematicians, some of whom would still like to keep statistics firmly tucked in as a minor bedfellow of algebra and trigonometry. Regular readers will be aware of my feelings on this. They are expressed in the posts Hey mathematics, leave the stats alone and last week’s offering What mathematics teachers need to know about statistics. How I came to these views, from maths teacher, to Operations Researcher, to statistics educator are described in another post, the End of OR at UC. […]

  7. Howard Edwards says:

    Very sad to hear that Operations Research is being discontinued at Canterbury. I can still remember attending an inter-university forum on OR back in the1980s, where it was recognised that the only universities in NZ that had manage to mount succesful OR programmes were those that had achieved buy-in from the applied faculties, namely Engineering at Auckland and Commerce at Canterbury.
    I’m not up with the current state of play of OR/DS in NZ universities but it seems to me to be a major loss to the NZ economy if we close down one of the only two established departments in such an important area.

  8. […] I am not well placed to advise in this area as I never did get a very good research programme and took redundancy to avoid being punished for my choices with reducing resources for research. However I do know that […]

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