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Using “Parks and Recreation” to Teach Economics

tv staticEconomic educators are always trying to find new ways to breathe fresh air into the economics classroom and to get away from conventional “chalk talk” methods made famous in movies such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off(1986). I know we all remember Ben Stein putting the class to sleep during a macroeconomics class.

A new article in the most recent edition of the Journal of Economics and Finance Education suggests a novel approach for capturing students’ attention: using the TV show “Parks and Recreation” to teach economics. The authors, L. Brooke Conaway and Christopher Clark, name this method “Swansonomics,”after Ron Swanson, a libertarian leaning character in the show. Parks and Recreation,” a popular show on NBC, concluded after seven seasons in February.

The idea of using TV shows as teaching methods for economics has been researched and blogged about before, specifically with “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Office.” These shows provide teachers with methods to make economics more palatable and engaging for students. Conaway and Clark’s Swansonomics integrates video clips and quotes from the show to introduce economic concepts such as public choice and government intervention. Swansonomics was designed by the authors to be a first-year multidisciplinary course, but it can also be applied to introductory principles of economics, comparative economic systems and institutions, and public choice courses.

The show is set in the town of Pawnee, Indiana where Ron is the director of the Parks and Recreation department. Ron, although working for the government, professes and outwardly displays his libertarian mindset. In season 5, Ron says, “There are only three ways to motivate people: money, fear, and hunger.” This quote enables teachers to introduce the topics of incentives, preferences, and self-interest.  For instance, compared to the other characters on the show, Ron is definitely more self-interested. To achieve his own agenda, Ron uses his position to limit the budget for the Pawnee local government.

As a Masters of Economics student myself, it is fun and exciting to see economics applications outside of the typical lecture and textbook.

According to the authors, “…Parks and Recreation video clips and quotes can be used as tools for teaching economic concepts to undergraduates in any class.” They suggest innovative pedagogical methods to teach economics and stimulate learning with assignments involving policy memos, video clips, article evaluation, real world applications, debates, and discussion.

AIER, too, is using new and interesting ways to incorporate economics into classrooms. While the Teach-the-Teachers-Initiative does not use television shows, it has its own innovative ways to teach ideas such as unemployment, inflation, and government across the curriculum.

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