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Posts by Natalia V. Smirnova, PhD, Senior Research Fellow and Director of Education

Bridging the Gap Between Academia and the Workplace

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Education literature suggests that the nature of a student’s participation in workplace activities has a major impact on the knowledge that student acquires.

At AIER, we believe the classroom walls should be both transparent and permeable to the rigors and requirements of the workplace. Therefore, classroom learning needs to support an internship experience and vice versa, facilitating the integration of new college graduates into the labor force.

Two years ago, we held a pilot program for our applied economic research internship program. This past fall, we continued this program in conjunction with two academic institutions, the University of Sioux Falls and Missouri University of Science and Technology. We brought economists from AIER into the classroom, and brought the university professors and their students into the workplace. This exchange of staff occurred figuratively, of course. The course was “remote” and our interaction occurred across several meetings over WebEx and frequent communication using e-mail.

During the semester, 20 students worked in four teams on a project about employment trends in various industries, and the relationship of those trends to the business cycles. Students were supervised by research fellow Patrick Coate and me.

During the January 2017 intersession, 12 out of 20 students will be coming to AIER’s campus in western Massachusetts to continue their immersion in economic research. These students are from the University of Sioux Falls.

This kind of collaborative arrangement between academic institutions and practitioners represents an innovative approach to bridge the gap between undergraduate economic education and the professional world. It engages students in topical economic research and walks them through the research process, substantiating the theoretical base they had established in prior courses. This exposure helps undergraduates broaden their knowledge, and gain marketable skills and practical experience. This helps them become more successful participants in the global workforce.

This program supports AIER’s mission, raises our national profile as an innovator, and cultivates the connections for future collaborative engagements. If you want your class to be a part of this program next year, please contact me.

Picture: AIER in winter. Photo by Bruce Gore.

Economics Education: Planting the Seeds

natalia-and-michelle-3I recently came across Fred Ende’s blog on the topic of his educational professional development resolutions for 2017. I like the analogy that he uses to describe the value of a professional-development follow-up process by stating that “regular water — reflection — and sunlight — coaching/support — are needed for the best growth” of a planted seed of a teaching idea.

One of the special features of AIER’s Teach-the-Teachers Initiative (TTI) program, Economics Across the Curriculum, is the follow-up mentoring that leads to preparation and implementation of the lesson idea into the classroom. Our participants, mostly high school teachers teaching a wide array of subjects, learn how to integrate basic economic concepts into their courses.

Learning doesn’t end when the seminars are over. It is continuous, and so our program encourages participating teachers to develop their creative lesson ideas further, and put them into action.

The most challenging aspect of this implementation phase is not the development of the actual lesson plan – teachers do it easily — but rather, it is the construction of an evaluation instrument to measure students’ learning outcomes. Yes, we aspire to see if students’ knowledge improves after their teachers go through our program.

To measure students’ knowledge acquisition, we work with teachers to develop tests to administer in the classroom, before and after they have conducted the lessons created during our program. I am amazed how creative teachers are in integrating economic concepts into their non-economics fields of study, but I can see how difficult it is to come up with the evaluation instrument that would be personalized enough to capture the nuances of that creativity.

So far we have the results of 14 field tests conducted by teachers from our 2016 program. Students say that lessons are memorable because they are connected to the “real life” and are “interactive,” as well as “fun.” These comments show that our teachers are able to spark an interest in economics in their students, and make the concepts relevant to their lives.

This year we held training sessions in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. We will continue our westward expansion in 2017, building the TTI program to become truly national. We are planning to be in St. Louis, Miami, and Omaha next summer.

Recently, our Education Programs Coordinator, Michelle Ryan, and I were at the National Council for the Social Studies conference in Washington, D.C., where many social studies teachers and administrators stopped by our table to get more information about our program. We are confident that the seeds of economic knowledge that we plant during our workshop will grow into mature programs of interdisciplinary approaches to teaching economics with the help of our mentoring, reflection, and support along the way.

Picture: Michelle Ryan (left) and Natalia Smirnova at the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference in Washington, D.C., December 2-4, 2016.

Economic Music Videos, and Other Teaching Tools

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Picture: Berkshire County teachers who participated in the Economics Across the Curriculum workshop on November 8, 2016, in front of AIER. Kneeling (L to R): James Berlstein, Robert Thistle; Middle row (L to R): Joseph Bazzano, Natalia Smirnova (AIER), Kristina Farina, Ann Barber, Michelle Ryan (AIER); Back row (L to R): James Hurley, Edward Collins, Lucas Polidoro, Matthew Gottfried, Steve Estelle.

 

Rockonomix is an innovative project which encourages students to make their own videos that combine music with basic economic principles. The founder of Rockonomix joined us by satellite earlier this month at a professional development day for the Berkshire County schools.

First, let’s talk about the day itself, which was devoted to discussing creative ways of teaching economics to high school students. We are passionate about the Economics-Across-the-Curriculum approach within AIER’s Teach-the-Teachers Initiative (TTI), bringing economics lessons to a wide variety of classroom subjects.

We started by introducing AIER to 11 participating teachers: its history, its tradition of business cycle analysis, and its proprietary indexes, such as the Everyday Price Index and the College Destination Index.

Two teachers from Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, who are alumni of this program, were our guest presenters.

Steve Estelle shared his lesson about the Student Price Index, which he created and has taught several times in his Financial Algebra class. The Student Price Index measures the changes in prices of items students would ordinarily buy, like donuts, chips, coffee, and gasoline. His students tracked the price of their selected goods over time. He explained how to handle the students’ debate about which goods and services to include in their class’ market basket, how to manage the data collection process, and how to make sure that students learn the basics of index construction.

Another TTI alumna, Kristi Farina, showcased her lesson on exponential function in AP Algebra class by using Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the Consumer Price Index. She explained the steps in selecting and downloading data, creating and managing teams, and setting up step-by-step handouts for students to lead them through the assignment.

We shared several resources that can be used in the classroom. For instance, we showed the teachers our creative scavenger hunt exercise using the Web site FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data).

Then the founder of Rockonomix, Kim Holder, joined us by satellite. Kim, who is the director of the University of West Georgia’s Center for Economic Education, showed us amazing videos that students can create to help them learn economics in an enjoyable way. Kim’s idea of engaging students is simple: use students’ interests, like listening to the latest hit song or watching the newest viral video, to lead them to learn economic concepts. Here is the video “Save,” a parody of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” that we saw during the program: “Save what you want to save, don’t let it all run out. Honestly, I want to see you save…”

We like to see students enthusiastically embracing the concept of saving ”funds” for their needs and wants.

Kim also described the national competition of economics videos that takes place in the spring every year. She encouraged Berkshire teachers to motivate students to participate.

We wrapped up the productive day by discussing lesson ideas to implement in the classroom. Participants represented teachers of social studies, mathematics, computer science, accounting, and career readiness. We are excited to see if any of the ideas will be realized in their classes in upcoming months. We always support the integration of economics across the curriculum!

Educating Students for a Changing World

st-louis-fed-seal-croppedAIER continues to innovate in the sphere of economic education. This semester we are helping students gain practical economic research skills as they take applied economic research courses at two universities: the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Through this partnership, students will develop skills such as effective collaboration, economic research, analytical and critical thinking, and professional writing. These skills will culminate in the students’ meaningful contribution to a unique research project.

Twenty students are enrolled in this class across the two schools. They have divided themselves into four teams. AIER researchers serve as outside experts and practitioners.

We asked students to analyze employment trends in various industries, and relate those to business cycles. This analysis will help us with work on our Employment Destination Index, as well as our Business Conditions Monthly publication.

Our remote collaboration so far has consisted of two Skype sessions with students to get acquainted and discuss the project at hand. There was an opportunity to ask questions, clarify the work flow and expectations. By the beginning of October, the four teams delivered a review of the literature, and data description parts to us. Our staff provided feedback and direction for further research.

The data for employment in the sectors chosen by students were obtained through the FRED portal of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Then students were asked to distinguish between trend growth and fluctuations around the trend for each sector. This task proved to be more of an art than a science. They needed to select the moving average that would smooth the line enough to eliminate random fluctuations, but not too much so as not to make it completely a straight line. It was interesting to read each team’s hypothesis about the trends in their sector and relation of those trends to the business cycle.

As the semester progresses, students learn not only about employment trends in various sectors, but also how to communicate remotely, how to organize a team of intellectual contributors, and how to ask questions through email in a professional way.

Next week, I will be sharing this experience with participants at the 14th Annual Professors Conference at the St. Louis Fed. The professors who are teaching those classes will be there with me. We will promote this arrangement to other universities because we believe that students gain a lot of new knowledge and skills from exposure to the practical world. I wrote about two features of practical experience, problem formation and the role of teamwork, in earlier blogs.

This kind of collaborative arrangement between academic institutions and practitioners is an innovative approach not only to improving undergraduate economic education, but also in helping undergraduates broaden their knowledge, gain practical experience, and become successful participants in the global workforce of a changing world.

 

Picture by Natalia V. Smirnova

Showcasing Teach-the-Teachers in Phoenix

cee-brochure-2016Last week I attended the Council for Economic Education’s 55th Annual Financial Literacy and Economic Education Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Every year this conference gathers K–12 educators, council affiliates from across the country, Federal Reserve partners, and other educators. AIER collaborates with the council’s regional affiliates, as well as other partners, on the Teach-the-Teachers Initiative program.

In addition to clinics and professional presentations, there were four research sessions at the conference. These sessions showcased many research projects that either evaluate the state standards in K-12 education or evaluate a program’s impact. I was fortunate to be selected to present the results of our Teach-the-Teachers Initiative’s novel approach, Economics Across the Curriculum.

The Economics-Across-the-Curriculum approach encourages the integration of economic concepts into various disciplines. This helps teachers and students experience the beauty of interdisciplinary connections among topics, and engage in intellectual inquiry beyond the impermeable walls of a single-subject area. The participants’ diversity in subject matter generates cross-pollination of ideas, dynamism, and an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

AIER has run this program for three years so far. The first two cycles (2014 and 2015) were held at our campus in the beautiful Berkshires. In 2016, we branched out and held this program at the locations of the Federal Reserve Banks in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. I was proud to present the impact of our program through the three cycles. We worked directly with 122 teachers and 483 students. But each teacher will continue to bring their expertise to more and more students through the years. If, on average, each teacher educates 75 students every year, we have indirectly had an impact on more than 9,000 students so far.

I also shared several lessons that were field-tested by our alumni teachers in their classrooms after the completion of the program. I hope that those lessons serve as catalysts for other innovative ideas to integrate economics across the high school curriculum.

In the summer of 2017 we are planning Economics Across the Curriculum workshops in St. Louis, Miami, and Omaha.

 

Picture by Natalia V. Smirnova.

Teamwork, In the Classroom vs. the Workplace

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Picture: From L to R: Ken Driessel, Ethan Krohn, Rustin Partow at AIER.

In my previous post, I described the different approaches to problem solving in the workplace as compared to the academic classroom. Today I want to emphasize another important difference between the classroom and the workplace: the role of teamwork.

In his book “Engaged Learning in the Academy”, David Moore of New York University postulates that the academic setting requires different kinds of learning as compared to the office environment. In the workplace, thinking is distributed across members of a team, whereas in school the cognitive work often has to be performed by an individual. Moore calls it “cognitive teamwork.”

The argument goes like this: In academia, teachers and students study a theory, and then test a hypothesis against evidence in pursuit of a conclusion that is universal, abstract, and decontextualized. As students master the scientific method, they are asked to produce an outcome (a paper, a research report) on an individual basis in order to receive a grade for the course. Even though group projects in academia are more in fashion today, there still needs to be an individual component on which to base the student’s assessment.

In the workplace, people encounter and handle concrete, situated problems. While searching for a solution, they take context into account, and create the knowledge that is particular and contingent on a specific situation. Employees are usually required to work in teams, both formal and informal, working collaboratively on a project. So both the cognition itself and team building are different in the workplace than the classroom.

At AIER, as we work with our interns and summer fellows, we aim to complement the theoretical base that students bring with them by engaging them in “situated” learning. We pair students with AIER researchers, and allow their creativity to flourish by asking them to contribute meaningfully to the projects. By working on projects that tackle concrete issues, students develop the cognitive teamwork skills that Moore is talking about.

In my view, however, the most important outcome of AIER’s engagement with students is how they develop the ability and confidence to use this skill of cognitive teamwork in their future careers.

The Value of Practical Experience

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When AIER interns arrived on campus last week, their academic counselors were happy that students would be getting practical experience in the workplace. But what does “practical experience” mean and how is it different from classroom experience?

David Moore’s seminal 2013 book “Engaged Learning in the Academypresents a summary of the theoretical underpinnings of the educational value of learning in the workplace. The author suggests that the learning that occurs in the workplace is not just an “application” of the concepts acquired in the classroom. The out-of-school environment, Moore says, requires different kinds of cognition. The skills that are attained at a professional site differ from the skills developed in an academic setting.

One of the cognitive abilities that develop differently in the workplace as compared to academia is “problem formation,” according to Moore. Let me explain this in the context of an economic think-tank: At AIER, our researchers define an economic problem or issue, and then try to solve it or obtain the answer to a research question about this economic issue. Our interns work closely with the researchers on these tasks. Therefore, interns participate actively in both defining the problem and solving it.

In the classroom setting, on the other hand, the teacher is usually the one who defines the problem and assigns this problem to students to “solve” or research. Since the workplace requires additional tasks, our internship program helps students gain those additional cognitive abilities. In addition, the skills acquired in the classroom take a different form in the workplace. For example, critical thinking at AIER advocates action, preparation of well-articulated ideas, and efficient delivery of those ideas to others.

This is just one aspect of learning that occurs during an AIER internship. And as our alumni tell us, the skills they acquired here help them to land jobs in the marketplace.

Picture: 2016-2017 academic year interns at AIER. From L to R: Sakshi Pareek (Drexel University); Fahd Zia (Lee High School) ; AIER’s Max Gulker (standing); Kevin Deptula (Williams College); Jacob Broude (Williams College).

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Money School: Second Successful Year

Money School CoverAIER’s Money School continues to improve the financial literacy of people in the Berkshires who have been affected by domestic or sexual violence. The Elizabeth Freeman Center, our longstanding Money School partner, presented the second year of the program.

The center held three of the workshops in 2016, two in Pittsfield in March and April and one in Great Barrington in May. Thirty-six individuals completed the curriculum covering maximizing their income, budgeting, credit and debt, resume writing, and education and employment resources, among other topics.

In addition to gathering information and practicing skills, participants benefited from volunteer financial coaches who helped the workshop participants navigate a credit report, and develop strategies for improving their credit scores.

Participants said they enjoyed the experience of learning as a group. The sharing between participants helped them better learn the qualities that are at the center of AIER’s Money School philosophy: competence, confidence, and connections.

AIER helped analyze the results of the 2016 series, and found an impressive impact on the competence and confidence of the participants after they completed the program. For example, 91 percent now have people to turn to for financial advice, and 78 percent met individually with someone for help with financial matters.

Eighty-one percent now know where to find resources to maximize their income, and 72 percent are more comfortable with creating and following a budget. And sixty-seven percent now follow a plan to reach their financial goals, and know what to do when faced with a financial challenge.

In the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017, the Elizabeth Freeman Center will run five more Money School workshops, and one of them will be conducted in Spanish. The first five-week series is planned to start on September 27, 2016, in Pittsfield. There will be a workshop in Great Barrington as well as others announced at a later date. Please contact Donna Larocque, Money School Coordinator/Facilitator at Elizabeth Freeman Center, for more information and to sign up: 413.499.2425 x613 or donnal@elizabethfreemancenter.org.

Reflections on AIER’s 2016 Summer Fellowship

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Picture: AIER Summer Fellows at Tanglewood.
Front row (L to R) Michael Cooper, Ruonan Song, Lan Thi Ngoc Nguyen, Bradley Oerth, Anna Connell; Back row (L to R) Nathaniel Burke, Cheikhou Kane, Zhandos Ybrayev, Ryan Smith, Max Gulker, Brandon Turk, Michelle Ryan

 

Our seventieth Summer Student Fellowship Program came to a close on August 12, and we are pleased with all our fellows accomplished. This spring, we received 63 applications, and selected a group of 10 students from various colleges and universities around the country.

As we do each year, we carefully examined each applicant’s skills and interests, course work, and practical experience. We ended up with a diverse group in terms of skill sets, fields of study, and educational backgrounds. We applied their skills to our research and to experimenting with ideas for online tools.

Each student was assigned to work with an AIER researcher. Some were selected based on either their familiarity with the concepts, or their quantitative skills, such as the technical ability to build a database or perform economic analyses. Some students, however, found themselves challenged by an assignment to a research project that was unfamiliar to them. We think that an opportunity to tackle something new and researching something outside of one’s comfort zone is typical for an actual workplace practice. This was no longer a continuation of their classroom experience where the syllabus specifies all the details of the course, or where one can select to not even enroll in the class during the “shopping” period at the start of the semester. What we provided was a real-life environment with fluid ideas, open discussion, and hard deadlines. And we knew that the students were up for the task.

Students worked on the topics that are part of our traditional research agenda, such as our business cycle model, Everyday Price Index, inflation scorecard, as well as personal finance. What they got was an introduction to a new data set, a new econometric technique, an additional article on a topic of interest, or more programming skills.

The summer fellows brought great energy to our campus, and the staff and interns learned a lot from each other.

In addition to the research part of the fellowship, students attended our Summer Speaker Series of lectures presented by AIER researchers, as well as research seminars after the talks to delve deeper into the topics.

We also took the fellows to cultural gems of the Berkshires: Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Shakespeare & Company theater group.

At the debriefing meetings, which we hold at the conclusion of the fellowship with each student and their supervisor, we heard that it was tough at first for students to adjust to AIER’s research demands. However, as the fellowship progressed, they felt independent and empowered to make their own decisions about the breadth and depth of their research. At the end, fellows produced many useful essays, analyses, and tools.

All students agreed that AIER’s Summer Student Fellowship contributed to their educational growth and career aspirations. We are happy to make a positive impact on young researchers, and to continue to develop a cadre of people interested in economics and economic research.

Our Summer Economics Education Road Trip

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Picture: Participating teachers watched a video segment about the Federal Reserve, and were asked to write true and false statements about the Fed’s structure and functions, and put them on the board. The statements would be used in building multiple choice questions on tests for their students.

 

AIER’s Teach-the-Teachers Initiative went on the road this summer, and I’d like to report the results. Our Economics-Across-the-Curriculum approach encourages teachers to incorporate economic concepts as well as engaging teaching strategies into their classes on a variety of subjects.

This summer we collaborated with the Federal Reserve Banks of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia on this program. Our partners also included the Massachusetts and Illinois Councils for Economic Education.

Eighty-three teachers attended our workshops this summer. This is a four-fold increase in the number of participating teachers as compared to our pilot programs at the AIER campus during the past two years.

One of our program’s distinctive features is the development of a lesson idea for implementation in the classroom. As we present our material, we demonstrate and discuss active learning techniques. Participants are challenged to think about how they can use these to support their students’ learning process. We devote some time to this task during the workshop and give this assignment as homework.

The lesson ideas include adding an interactive component on the subject of calculating the unemployment rate to a high school economics class; introducing students to data gathering in algebra class by creating a price index with items teenagers often buy; or introducing the concept of inflation to a Spanish class by demonstrating how prices are set in a roadside market in a Latin American country. The possibilities for engaging students are endless, and our participants continue to amaze us with their creativity.

We go even further to find out the impact of our program on students. We encourage teachers to consider field testing their lesson idea in the classroom. This year, we expect interesting lessons that bring economic concepts to such classes as family and consumer science, geography, entrepreneurship, life skills, graphic design, biology, and civics. These will be in addition to economics, social studies, history, math, government, politics, as well as financial literacy fields of study.

We hope to hear from the participants during the upcoming semester. As we hear their stories, we will bring them to you.