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  • Destenie Nock

The Halloween Episode: Decision Analysis gets Sppoky

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

At the fundamental level a professor's job is to impart wisdom to the next generation of students. At the fun level a professor's job is to make learning interesting, fun, and help topics become memorable. In this post we discuss a look into decision analysis during Dr. Nock Halloween Episode of class.

November 1, 2020

By Destenie Nock


The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a trend of new attempts to have global virtual fun. While virtual fun is not the same as regular fun, some people have claimed that with technology it is virtually just as good. With zoom, online games, and a wealth of resources on the internet professors everywhere are rethinking active learning, and what this means in an online setting. Even with all of the active learning in the world is is hard to know if people are paying attention from behind a computer screen. This challenge is compounded when people have their videos off, and are on mute the entire time. Now instead of professors being actors of the classroom stage (with feedback from the audience), they have been thrust into the role of TV host. The TV host has a tougher job than the actor because without a live audience there is no feedback, and you don't know if your jokes are funny until the ratings come in. So now you know they inspiration for the Halloween Episode.

Leading up to Halloween my class had been learning about decision trees. This super awesome tree is used to help people and companies make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Imagine you are deciding between two jobs (Job A and Job B). You see the range of salaries for each job but there is some uncertainty about what salary you will land on, and how it will grow over ten years. The decision tree for this can be seen in Figure A, below.

Figure A: Job dilemma in a decision tree. The salary is in thousands.

Once you have drawn out the tree you have to find the expected dollar value of each decision branch in the tree. This is done by multiplying the final dollar value by the probability and summing them as follows:

  • Job A Expected Dollar Value = 100 * 0.5 + 60 * 0.5 = $ 80

  • Job B Expected Dollar Value = 80 * 0.7 + 70 * 0.3 = $ 77

So we can see that while Job A has the lowest value in the tree, the expected value of Job A is higher than Job B, so decision tree analysis tells us we should go with the Job A option.

To connect this to the students everyday lives I mixed decision trees with extra credit on the next homework assignment. In the virtually live Halloween episode of our class there was a chance for people to get extra credit, but they only way they would find out is if they played the lottery. I gave my class the following decision tree for extra credit in the class (Figure B).

Figure B: Extra credit for Halloween dilemma in a decision tree

The expected value of wearing a Halloween mask was 3.2 points, a hat was 0.6 points, and the boring (whatever they normally wear to class) option was 0. So if they were all following the decision tree theory I told them I expected to see everyone come in a costume/mask. To answer the question on everyone's minds...COVID masks did not count.

On the day of the Halloween episode I had 14 guest appearances (~ 10 people choose to not dress up). We had everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a Fortune Teller. Unfortunately the Fortune Teller's powers only work in person, and her virtual predictions were virtually nonexistent.

Figure C: Guest appearances in the Virtually Live Halloween Episode

While the TV producers hoped students would be able to watch in real time, we cannot forget about the asynchronous people, who were also given the chance to participate in the virtual fun. The woman with a spider in her eye, was only able to see half of the class, but luckily the presentation was recorded.

The woman with a spider in her eye

Cat Woman was fur-tunate enough to catch a tapping of the class.

Cat Woman making a guest appearance

As the TV host I could not let the students have all of the fun. Every time the students came back from the Zoom break out rooms I was in a different costume. The reactions on their faces let me know who was paying attention, and who was most likely surfing Facebook/Twitter while they listened to class.

First up was Bat-Lady

Then we had an appearance by the Pumpkin Woman.

For the grand finale we had the Golden TV Host / Super Teacher.

At the very end of class the students who dressed up were awarded 4 extra credit points on their next homework assignment. Based in the smiles I think the students liked it, but since they were all on mute we won't know until the TV ratings (i.e. student evaluations) come in at the end of the semester. Stay tuned! Thanks for reading. See you next time folks.

If you like this post feel free to subscribe below or follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor position in Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department as well as in the Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on understanding trade-offs between sustainability and equality objectives in energy systems. She loves working with students because of the direct impact she can have on helping people get to where they want to be in their career. She holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned an MS from Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. In her free time she has had to learn some new social distancing hobbies. During COVID she has rediscovered her past self which reminded her that she loves to paint, sew, and go for walks in the park.

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