Fried Tofu and Cats in Boxes:
Teaching Abstract Concepts in Business Analytics
Yuyun Zhong James Madison University
Amy Connolly James Madison University
Abstract One of the courses in our business analytics program that is taught to all business students is based on principles of operations management. In particular, this course requires students to understand production/service process, such as a waiting room for a hospital emergency room or a factory assembly line. Students often struggle with this course because concepts such as aggregate planning, buffering, blocking, and starving are too abstract for students to grasp readily. In our experience, instructors of this material traditionally introduce real-world business examples to illustrate the processes and derive formulas. While such business examples are indeed relevant, these examples lack context for traditional college students fresh out of high school. Without context, students feel overwhelmed, lose interest and become disengaged with the material. To remedy this disconnect, we decided to take a step back and come at the problem from a different angle. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “If you can’t run, then walk.” In this spirit, we decided to show students cats before asking them to fight tigers.
We created two examples that made the abstract concepts enlightening and incredibly engaging. These examples revolved around two concepts, independently: frying tofu and cats in boxes. These examples came from students’ lived experiences rather than vague business world applications. What made these examples stand out however, (besides the obvious) was how well students immediately connected the abstract to the concrete and in doing so, became excited to try bigger challenges. Procedurally, we began with definitions, then introduced the example. We led students through a discussion where they identified the concepts and problems within the process. For a brief summary of process analysis concepts, see the linked reference from NetMBA.
To explain starving, blocking, and buffer, students watched a video showing the instructor attempting to fry tofu (a common vegan protein alternative). This example eventually turned into an inside joke; students reported that the tofu example made the confusing concepts easier to understand and absolutely unforgettable. For aggregate planning, the example describes a company that manufactures a variety of boxes. Coincidentally, it is run by cats. Their CEO is a Siamese; the CFO is a domestic shorthair; you get the idea. In the example, they discuss a variety of crises via Instant Messenger, they fight over company resources, and finally, they strike on a solution: aggregate planning. The discussion combined with the engaging examples, built students’ confidence and encouraged them to try more difficult problems.
We would like to share these examples with other instructors struggling with ways to make their analytics examples more engaging and interesting for students. We will especially discuss how we conducted the exercises completely online this past year, and how we plan to adapt them to in-person instruction moving forward, so all students can learn to battle tigers.