Resources for refreshing OM course content with 
hands-on activities

Kathryn M. Zuckweiler, Dean of the Dr. Billie Doris McAda Graduate School at Midwestern State University.

by Kathryn Zuckweiler, Midwestern State University

For many faculty, summer is a chance to refresh course content and instructional approaches. Over the years, I’ve tried to make my courses more hands-on and engaging for students because I believe doing fosters learning much more than passive watching or listening. In today’s educational parlance, this could be considered a form of experiential learning.

Anecdotally, experiential learning has a meaningful positive effect on students. On their course evaluations, my students comment on how much they enjoy doing simulations and activities in class and that these activities make the topics easier to understand. This broadly reflects student feedback summarized in Fish (2005) and Mahar and Salzarulo (2008), among others.

Obviously, there is a wide range of activities that can be considered experiential learning, with the concordant range of time, cost, and other resources required to engage in them. It follows that some experiences have greater impact than others. It’s important to keep in mind that an activity doesn’t have to be splashy to have a positive impact on student learning. Rather the key elements are simply those of well-planned class activities, with an emphasis on active student involvement in the lesson.

I’ve taught an undergraduate operations management survey course many times and occasionally teach an introductory quality course. In both courses, most students have little background with the topics and may struggle with putting the concepts into practice. To overcome this, I use hands-on exercises adopted from decision sciences faculty that have been presented at the DSI annual meeting and/or published in Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education and other outlets. This is not an exhaustive list of hands-on exercises, nor is it intended to be. Rather, I hope it provides a handful of ideas as you think about your courses for the upcoming academic year.

Note: My general criteria for adopting an activity are that it is relatively inexpensive (less than $100, ideally less than $50), has clear take-away lessons for students, can be led by one instructor, and is fun. The classes I teach can be avenues for recruiting students to become management majors so I want them to experience the practical aspects of business and management in a productive, constructive, engaging environment. There may be frustration and confusion as they work through the activity and associated lessons, but I am diligent about ensuring that the debriefing alleviates any lingering negativity and leaves an overall positive perception.

Here, then, are some of the hands-on activities I use with my students. Many of these were published some years ago, but at least in my classroom they have stood the test of time. Where possible, I include a citation for the source of the activity along with a brief description, time estimate, and supplies needed.

Teaching quality control charts using chocolate chip cookies

I originally learned of this activity at a presentation at a DSI Annual Meeting many years ago. I do not remember the name of the presenter (my sincere apologies to that person), but the citation below describes essentially the same activity (and I hope was written by the original presenter).

This exercise asks groups of students to inspect chocolate chip cookies and count the number of chips in each cookie. The data is then used to create X-bar and R charts and draw conclusions about process variation. It can also facilitate conversations about sampling and the need for consistent inspection standards. The instructor can either record the data and develop the control charts on the board (which seems to help students learn the calculations and facilitates discussion of A2, D4, and D3) or show how to do this in a software package (Excel, Minitab, etc.).

Time estimate: It usually takes me two 50-minute class periods or a little more than one 75-minute class period to complete the activity, depending on the depth of discussion and quantity of questions about the creation and interpretation of the control charts.

Supplies needed: Packages of chocolate chip cookies. I purchase one package of cookies for each group of three or four students.

Source: Baker, A. (2014). Teaching quality control with chocolate chip cookies. Teaching Statistics, 36(1), 2-6.

A variation on this activity uses candy instead of cookies. See Gaffney, R.L. & Hays, J.M. (2007). Sweet control charts and process capability. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 5(2), 397-403.

Toy motorcycles for Design of Experiments

This activity uses Formula Fuelers toy motorcycles to teach Design of Experiments. Formula Fuelers were made by Mattel under the Hot Wheels brand in the early 2000s and are still available through online auction sites. I’ve always used the motorcycles but there are also Formula Fuelers cars available (and they may actually work better for the lesson than the motorcycles – see the source link below for an explanation).

This activity uses three different liquid “fuels” singly and in combination to affect how far the motorcycle travels. Students prepare the fuel mixture, measure the distance traveled, and record the data, which can be analyzed using full-factorial and fractional ANOVA. This activity has clear independent and dependent variables with an easy-to-understand explanation of the influence of the IVs on the DV. Its clarity makes this a great introduction to Design of Experiments.

Time estimate: The entire activity fits comfortably within a three-hour class session, but it could be completed in less time if students perform the data analysis outside of class. I prefer to allow ample time to run the experiment so we can discuss topics such as the need for a randomized run order and things that impact the accuracy of the experiment (for example, the motorcycle running into walls or other objects). I also typically spend class time guiding students through the Minitab data analysis in preparation for a similar homework assignment.

Supplies needed: Formula Fuelers motorcycle or car, extra fuel tank (if available; this saves a lot of time during the experiment because one run can be completed while the next tank of fuel is being mixed), three AA batteries; 25-foot (or longer) tape measure; 6 ml syringe to fill fuel tank (it’s helpful to have three syringes – one for each type of fuel); three different beverages to use as fuel (my favorites are coffee, tomato juice, and 7Up soda, although Sprite works well too); paper towels for the inevitable spills; device to record data (this can range from a piece of paper to a laptop running Excel or Minitab (or similar software)).


Legos for assembly line balancing

Line balancing is a difficult concept for students with little operations background. Most of my students sort-of understand the idea, but don’t fully appreciate the impact on process design and efficiency until they see it in practice. The Legos activity designed by Lynn Fish (cited below) allows students to operate the process and then calculate relevant metrics. There are also questions for discussion in the article.

After the discussion of process performance, I extend the activity to allow students to redesign the process to achieve balance and the associated gains. We then recalculate the metrics to see if their proposed redesign actually generates the gains they expect.

This is a simple, effective, hands-on activity that illustrates a challenging concept clearly and quickly.

Time estimate: Roughly 30 minutes, including the process redesign.

Supplies needed: Lego Duplo blocks (sizes and quantities described in Fish (2005)), worksheet to record data, timing devices (students can use their phones).

Source: Fish, L.A. (2005). Teaching assembly line balancing: A mini-demonstration with DUPLO® blocks or “The Running of the Dogs.” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 3(1), 169-176.

A related activity that demonstrates the differences between traditional assembly lines and just-in-time manufacturing is described in: Fish, L. A. (2006). Push versus pull mini-demonstration: A continuation of the mini-demonstration with Duplos or “The Running of the Dogs—Part II.” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education4(2), 323-330. 

Deming’s red beads

I showed students the Deming Institute’s video of Dr. Deming conducting the red beads experiment until one year I decided to actually do the experiment in class. What a profound difference! One student was trying so hard to meet the production targets that she was nearly in tears by the third round because she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. When I saw her a few years later, she still remembered that experience and what it taught her about variation. I’ve never forgotten it either.

Using the script linked below, I conduct the experiment much as Dr. Deming did so many years ago. I put cash on the table as a performance incentive, lay off the least-productive workers, exhort the best workers to meet goals, and involve each student in the class in some manner. This activity takes quite a bit of time to complete and many times, students don’t grasp the lessons until the debriefing session. I find, though, that when we talk through the exercise and reflect on what they experienced, Deming’s points about variation inherent in the process and the demoralizing effects on employees when managers don’t understand becomes crystal clear to the students. From that moment on, there is no confusion about the differences between common and special-cause variation (and the effects of poor and effective management practices).

Time estimate: The activity fits comfortably within a three-hour class session. It can be done across two-plus 50-minute classes or two 75-minute classes. The debriefing discussion is important and should be allotted enough time for students to reflect and ask questions.

Supplies needed: 3200 white beads and 800 red beads (beads may be purchased at a craft store or online; the only stipulation is that they are all the same size); two containers of sufficient size to hold all the beads approximately 8 layers deep; paddle with 50 holes in it to retrieve beads (can be made from two pieces of scrap plywood); signs and data worksheet described in script linked below.

Source: Activity script available at:

The Deming Institute Red Beads video is available at:

For a service-oriented version of the red beads experiment, see Wright, C.M. & Smith, M.E. (2003). Serving up the red beads experience. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 1(1), 127-131.

Using an integrated series of assignments

This activity asks students to create their own business in a specified industry and make operations decisions for their company in assignments throughout the semester. Students choose a name for their start-up company and navigate many of the decisions and scenarios that face new businesses.

This approach links the many seemingly disparate operations decisions made by businesses into a cohesive framework that helps students understand operations management from a systems perspective. It also provides a mechanism for teaching students to build spreadsheets to analyze the decisions. The approach can be customized for different businesses in both service and manufacturing sectors, which allows faculty to keep the assignments fresh and relevant.

I’ve used an integrated series of assignments based on Mahar and Salzarulo’s (2008) article for years with hundreds of students. Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The businesses they create provide a context for discussion throughout the semester, which enhances their engagement and understanding of course content.

Time estimate: Requires some prep time for the assignments, but no more than that needed for comparable assignments. In my classes, each student completes the assignments individually so grading time can be an issue in large sections.

Supplies needed: None.

Source: Mahar, S., & Salzarulo, P. A. (2008). Putting it all together: Weaving a common thread of assignments through introductory OM courses. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 6(2), 233-237.

Admittedly, these are not new ideas or activities. They are, however, effective, inexpensive, and easy to implement in almost every classroom. They don’t require external partners or fee payments or hours of planning and coordination, which makes them usable by any faculty member at any institution.

They work especially well in hybrid courses during face-to-face meetings to boost student engagement and interaction by getting students out of their chairs and working together. I also use some of them with fully-online classes. The integrated assignments easily adapt for online courses. The chocolate chip cookie control charts can be done online by asking each student to get some cookies, count the chips, and post the data to an online spreadsheet. Constructing the control charts can be demonstrated via web conference or screen-capture software.

If you decide to try these activities or seek out others, I encourage you to browse the teaching briefs in Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education as there is a treasure trove of hands-on activities in those articles. If you use experiential activities in your classes and would like to add them to this list, please email me at and I will be happy to include them in an update in Decision Line later this year.


Kathryn M. Zuckweiler is Dean of the Dr. Billie Doris McAda Graduate School at Midwestern State University. Her research focuses on health care administration, quality, project management, and online education. She has published in such journals as International Journal of Production Research, Academy of Health Care Management Journal, International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, International Journal of Human Computer Interaction, International Journal of Information and Operations Management Education, and Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education.

Updated: August 23, 2018 — 3:22 pm

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