I got back from Penn State today - I presented the work I have done with my doctoral student Ruken Duzgun in the seminar series of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. I have taken part in PSU's seminars several times over the past few years and always enjoy heading out west to catch up with my IE colleagues and their students (I schedule my talks to stay away from State College during the winter months, which might explain why I enjoy the scenic drive so much.) I got out before the influx of football fans, though; Penn State will be playing Temple tomorrow.
The faculty member who teaches a course similar to Lehigh's IE316 (my course on modeling real-life operations research problems and solving them on the computer) mentioned he uses LINGO (mostly) and GAMS (a little) in his course. In contrast, I focus on AMPL; I also like using Excel Solver to demonstrate Solver's limitations, and because Excel Solver is the only software taught in business schools. (The newly hired IE graduates will often report to MBAs, so it is important both groups "talk the same language".)
Unfortunately, LINGO is not free, and requires a license past the 60-day trial period. My PSU colleague requires a textbook that includes LINGO in a CD-Rom, thus making it easier to adopt the software. GAMS and AMPL can be downloaded for free with no time restriction; problems too large for these simple versions can be solved using the NEOS server. (There are some inconveniences, such as the fact that the NEOS server does not allow for .run files in AMPL; companies will certainly prefer buying their own licenses to take advantage of the software's full capabilities.)
As for the GAMS vs AMPL debate, that colleague's opinion was that GAMS is more used in industry than AMPL - maybe because no one wants to be seen using AMPL's DOS interface, which shows its age. But I find AMPL a lot easier to learn than GAMS; this helps students with limited training in optimization software catch up quickly. The most annoying feature of GAMS, I think, is that it only uses sets rather than numbers to describe the indices of decision variables. (AMPL allows both options.) This means that in GAMS, you can't simply go from time (index) t to time t+1, or sum from time 1 to time t, as t is not viewed as a number but as a character. The trick is to count the elements in the set of time periods and tell GAMS to use the one ranked immediately after t (to reach t+1), or sum all the elements whose rank is t or lower (for the sum).
In addition, the fact that the objective must be defined as equal to a dummy decision variable is somewhat irritating. But a great advantage of GAMS is that it imports data from, and exports it to, Excel spreadsheets with remarkable ease. So I will probably have a lecture toward the end of the semester where students learn to translate the problems they have written in AMPL into GAMS. This way they will not have to bother with the modeling part (which they will have already seen), but will enter the workforce with some knowledge of both types of software. This should make for an interesting week in December after our last quiz.
One thing I had not noticed until this trip to PSU is the aggressive branding of the State College area as "Happy Valley". I couldn't decide if it was a pure marketing gimmick, a hint at Penn State's status as #1 party school in America (downgraded to #3 by Princeton Review this year) - I guess you can say students tend to be happier when they party - or a subtle reminder that, as I was told, home values have held up despite the recent turmoil, showing that residents don't want to leave.
If State College markets itself as the "Happy Valley", maybe the Lehigh Valley should brand itself the "Lucky Valley" (my non-local readers, who represent most of my readership, should be reminded of the Sands Casino nearby to understand the pun). It sounds corny, but not much more than Bethlehem calling itself the Christmas City when it has nothing to do with the birth of little Jesus. (Click here for a list of cities named Bethlehem, including Bethlehem, GA, which is mentioned several times in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and is, in that respect, more famous than its PA counterpart. Maybe that will change once Bethlehem, PA has its very own novel.)
Penn State is a remarkable university with multiple facets: top party school and "Public Ivy" (top 15 public university, according to US News), "credited with having the second-largest impact on the state economy of any organization, generating an economic effect of over $17 billion on a budget of $2.5 billion" (source: Wikipedia.com), described as having "the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world" (ibid.), a strong Greek system, a famous dance marathon and a long list of notable alumni. While the IE major is only one of the many academic programs available in State College, it can't hurt that the department is ranked among the Top 5 in the country.