I have taught courses in transportation, logistics and supply chain management for more than 20 years. In that time, I have come to understand that the world of supply chains is full of complexity, accountability, customer demand, uncertainty, mistakes and nature.

When it comes to conveying that complexity in the classroom, one of the best teaching methods for getting students' attention is to ask them for a few definitions up front in the first week of class. I don't mean that I have them look up the definitions in the required textbook and cut and paste the answer for all to see in a public discussion page.

Days before that first class, I send an email to each student and post an announcement for Week 1. I also post a disclaimer or set of instructions up front that they are not to open the textbook at all for this first day of class.

Instead, I ask them what is their personal view of a supply chain. I want the definition in their own words.

Various student answers for supply chain definitions

At first, many students are a bit frightened of giving the wrong answer or appearing to seem stupid. I get emails on that issue during that first day or two of class. They want clarification of what is being asked of them. I tell them that each person's definition is correct.

I tell them the grade for this first exercise comes from just answering the question. About half the class hesitates to give an answer, still trying to figure out what I am up to. They know teachers are crafty and want them to learn something they either don't know or may not have a burning desire to know. They suspect a trap.

So what happens with this exercise? One interesting part of this teaching trick is that five out of 22 students ignore the intent of the request for their personal opinions. They go straight to the textbook and copy and paste an answer, using quote marks around the definition.

Those few students ignore the message, the announcement and the information in a discussion forum. My first reply to them is to again ask them to provide their own definition, based on their work experience or some other aspect of their lives, such as purchasing a cup of coffee from their favorite coffee shop.

Most of the time, their response is an apology for not reading the instructions, message or announcement carefully. Then they write a more thoughtful answer, going into detail about what could create that cup of coffee from its very long supply chain. They do a lot more work than those who follow the instructions.

For those students who do read and follow the instructions, the results are just as rich in flavor, coverage and difference in meanings.

Most of the students really have fun with trying to give their answers. Some indicate that a supply chain is a flow of supplies. Some really don't seem to have a clue and instead describe how they order some product from Amazon. We get some who know about farming and describe how they grow crops from seeds until you get some food to sell to consumers for their supper. The supply chain ends with an empty plate after eating a meal.

The result of that week is a robust discussion by all students — those who jumped into the exercise without reading the instructions and those who saw the benefit of putting their own words on paper to demonstrate their knowledge.

The method is not really a trick as much as it is an understanding that students are a bit fearful at the start of a new class with a new instructor.

Students discover real-world explanations of a supply chain

I also ask students in another class to visit a retail store and ask an assistant manager the meaning of terms that seem so simple or commonsense — safety stock, seasonal inventory, dead stock and normal inventory.

The expectation from the student is similar to the supply chain management definition exercise. The students get a shock in knowledge awareness, knowledge growth and a nudge into critical thinking by asking themselves, "Why?"

If you are interested, safety stock was called top stock by an assistant manager at a Lowe's and back stock by an assistant manager at Safeway, REI, Office Max and Starbucks. In other retail stores, a manager from a Panda Express restaurant referred to it as extra stock. At an Old Navy store, it was called upstock.

So, the term safety stock has at least four different meanings. And its definitions vary just as greatly.

In the retail industry, terminology that appears to be commonsense or common terms is as varied as the number of retail businesses. In a separate field trip experiment, students found that five different Walmart store managers had five different definitions for safety stock.

Another example of a supply chain is "I, Pencil," the story of a yellow wooden pencil. It provides an eye-opening view of the diverse nature of supply chain management and the level of wholesale and retail connections.

All said, it shows that a supply chain is a complex system, and not really a chain at all. It is more like a network or even a network of networks.

That humble cup of coffee is made from a coffee bean that makes about 100 stops between its initial picking and its final brewing into that hot liquid. And we did not include the origin of the seed and farming aspect of producing that coffee bean.