Making sense of complicated numbers

Nan Ratisoontorn teaching

“No one likes to just see numbers and formulas on a board,” says Nan Ratisoontorn. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.

Making numbers tell a story may be the secret to Nan Ratisoontorn’s teaching success.

“No one likes to just see numbers and formulas on a board,” Ratisoontorn says. “I like to give examples, to tell a story. I try to find a reason that you should look at all those numbers.”

Ratisoontorn likes solving problems, figuring out the how and why to make things better. She tells her students that what they learn in her course, they can use in everyday life.

“I’m such a lazy person! I don’t like to walk,” she says, giving an example. She turned her walk to the CTA station into a “shortest path” problem: “Can I find a shorter way, a safer way to get to the same point?”

Ratisoontorn, lecturer in mechanical and industrial engineering in the College of Engineering, teaches operations research, where the goal is to optimize, to make something better, she explains — “a combination of mathematics, statistics and a little bit of business.”

For example, the daily newspaper.

“Everything has a shelf life; the newspaper’s is only 24 hours,” she says. “And yet, at
the beginning of the day you have to know exactly how many to order. You can’t just pick a number, so how do you decide?”

Ratisoontorn came to Chicago from her native Thailand, planning to earn a master’s degree in computer science and return home, where a U.S. degree can help you get a job, she says.

But during her studies at the University of Chicago, she realized what she really wanted to do was teach. She changed her major when she finished her master’s and came to UIC for a Ph.D. in mechanical and industrial engineering, joining the faculty two years ago.

The most important part of teaching for her, she says, is listening to student feedback.

“For example, you may think the pace of your class is right, not too fast, not too slow, but it is good to hear from students.

“We are engineers,” she says. “We always say that re-engineering is a repetitive process — you have to do it all the time.”


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