It's hard to believe the Fall semester starts in ten days. Where did the summer go? Last week I attended the training for the First-Year EvoLUtion seminar series (which I finally decided to volunteer for), and next week I have the training for the book discussion, a meeting for all the first-year advisers, and then of course the meeting with my first-year advisees this coming Friday - Thursday being the big day where freshmen and freshwomen arrive on campus. My list of advisees is even on Banner already! (Banner being Lehigh's web system where faculty enter grades, look up class rosters, etc.) Assignments used to be made depending on the first initial of the last name, but the process seems to have changed - I have one advisee whose last name starts with a B, one with a D, one with a G, two with a K, three with a M, one with a N, two with a S, and two with a V. If there is a rule behind this, I haven't found it.
Thirteen is a good number - not too many so that I can keep an eye on them, not too few because there are 1,208 incoming students (not all of them in the College of Engineering), and less students for me means more students for someone else - the Registrar's Office typically assigns ten to fifteen students per adviser. This year I think I'll have all of my advisees fill a little form about themselves while we go to lunch. Last year students were told to go and meet with their adviser if they had an issue with their courses, but since most of them didn't have any issues, there is a whole bunch I barely spoke to when we were waiting in line for lunch in the dining hall and didn't see again until November when we met to discuss Spring registration (because at lunch no table was big enough to seat all of us and they went to sit in little groups). That is obviously not optimal, especially for the students who end up struggling with their classes. For instance, quite a few first-year students can tell when they're headed for academic trouble (not because they're troublemakers, but because calculus is way over their head), but they're reluctant to sign up for tutoring unless their adviser (as in: me) agrees with them, prints the form available on the webpage on her office printer, makes them fill it in front of her, locates the office where they're supposed to bring the form on the Lehigh website, and sends them on their way. Total time for me: two minutes and a half. Impact for the students of not having to repeat their first math course in college: priceless. But they're never going to show up in my office to talk about their math troubles if they haven't met me already. So this year they'll have to stick around during lunch even if they don't want to! I also might start weekly office hours for my first-year advisees, so that they know a time of the week where I'll always be there and have time for them if they want to drop by.
There was such a high level of energy in the room for the EvoLUtion training - it is amazing to see how many faculty and staff members volunteer for those things when they have nothing to gain in return, except the satisfaction of helping college students - or at least trying to. The staff members in the Office of the First-Year Experience in particular are the enthusiastic souls who designed the whole program, which only started at Lehigh four years ago (and in the first year there was no evoLUtion seminar and the book discussion was optional.) So it is great to talk with the people who got this off the ground. We discussed characteristics (such as "hardworking" or "nice") vs sources of identity (like religious or spiritual affiliation, dietary needs, artistic skill, or athletic status), the Inputs- Environments- Outputs theory and all kinds of exercises we'll have the students do. I selfishly enjoy that kind of training a lot, not only because I'm interested in psychology (which I am), but because it provides lots of opportunities to interact with staff members I'd never meet otherwise. For instance, I ended up being seated next to someone in charge of the co-op program, who asked me why my department (Industrial and Systems Engineering) was sending so few students do a co-op this year, while companies absolutely love our students (the quantitative but business-oriented training of industrial engineers is in high demand). The transitions in the department might have had something to do with it, but they are a thing of the past now, and it's time to revive the co-op program.
So I am teaching two courses this coming semester - I am very much looking forward to that! I've missed teaching. (Last semester I didn't teach but only supervised theses and projects.) I've taught IE 316 every Fall semester since I joined Lehigh; it's a senior-level elective about optimization models in real life. There are 45 students registered so far, and I am so grateful that enrollment is not exceeding 47 because that's the maximum capacity of the biggest classroom in the industrial engineering building - having more than 47 students enrolled would get us kicked out and would send us trekking to some dreary old place like the mathematics building, Christmas-Saucon. (Sorry math folks - I taught in Christmas-Saucon my first semester at Lehigh and don't want to do it again.) Right there, the course is off to a good start.
I plan to cover problems in inventory management, revenue management, portfolio management, and the like; the syllabus has plenty of information on that. As I mentioned in an old post of mine, I will have more but shorter assignments this year, and I will also give the solutions to last year's exercises in the course packet for the students who want more training. The one thing I have to do before the semester starts is to re-do all the examples using GAMS rather than AMPL - students who took the prerequisite course in the Fall learned AMPL, which is the software I know, but those who took it in the Spring learned GAMS, which I know nothing about. So to give students the option to use the software they've learned before, I have one week to teach myself GAMS. I doubt it's very different from AMPL, though. I was counting the number of lectures we'll have and trying to see how many assignments I could squeeze into the semester, when it occurred to me that Thanksgiving is falling very late this year, so the week after Thanksgiving is also the last week of classes. Usually, there is one week between Thanksgiving and the last week of classes where I can schedule a quiz, but you can't schedule exams during the last week of classes, which means the last day I can have an exam is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and that is simply not going to happen. (Thanksgiving break starts on Wednesday here, which means, for some reason I've never understood, that students start leaving on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, if not before.)
No big deal, I thought, I'll just schedule it for the Thursday before Thanksgiving week. I went back to planning the homework schedule, but I had this nagging feeling something was really, really off. Then I remembered: the week before Thanksgiving is Lehigh-Lafayette week! (a week of parties for the students before the big football game on Saturday.) Gasp. Scheduling an exam for that Thursday is just cruel. What if the Lehigh team actually wins (they haven't won since before I joined, which as far as I'm concerned means that they haven't won since the beginning of civilization) and the 45 industrial engineering seniors taking my course remember for the rest of their life that I prevented them from enjoying the celebrations leading to that game, ruined their senior year, ruined their college memories, and then sent them into a downward spiral of abysmal depression? More seriously, if I schedule a test for that Thursday, I might be the one sent into a downward spiral of abysmal depression. After all, people do a lot better on exams when they can keep both eyes open at the same time. Anyway, I'm planning to have the test on the Tuesday of the Lehigh-Lafayette week, and since we can't just be done with the course mid-November, we will also have a project about how companies really do implement optimization models in real life. All this to explain to the students who are reading this blog why the last test will be so early this year and why we'll be having a final project. I know the rest of the world is just fascinated.
The other course I will be teaching is IE 406, a course on linear optimization for first-year PhD students, which I've never taught before (one of my colleagues teaches it every year, but he'll be on sabbatical this academic year), but I took the course from the co-author of the textbook Lehigh uses, my very own former adviser at MIT, Dimitris Bertsimas. Besides, linear optimization is a central component of my research, so if there is one topic I know by heart, it is this one. I even have all the lectures and assignments preciously saved from the Fall of 2000 when I took the course as a student at MIT, which is nothing short of a miracle, given my ability to mix papers and forget where I've placed them. (And the fact that I only have one paper copy and no electronic copy. Once I located the lecture notes over the summer, I put them all in one big plastic bag, which has become one of my most prized possessions. If I could, I'd put a RFID chip on it.) So this semester should be very enjoyable, I think. I'm really, really excited about teaching this semester - it's going to be a great term!