Prof. John List recruits researchers to teach south suburban eighth-graders about economics

As two researchers in an economics project at UChicago looked on via videoconference, a class of south suburban eighth-graders took turns coming to a microphone to explain what the expression “opportunity costs” meant to them.

“I went shopping on Saturday and I bought Nike shoes, but I had to give up buying a hoodie,” explained one girl in a class designed to help them learn the principles of economics.

“I went to a friends house and gave up playing with my family,” another girl said.

Alec Brandon, one of the video-linked instructors, praised the students for their comments. “Great work everybody.  I think you know how powerful a tool this is for understanding economics.”

The exercise was part of a weekly economics class that UChicago researchers are offering for 20 students in Chicago Heights Elementary School District 170. John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor in Economics, organized the class, “Web Economics and Beyond,” with Thomas Amadio, Superintendent of District 170.  Brandon and co-instructor David Novgorodsky are members of List’s research staff on experimental economics. Brandon, AB ’08, plans to enter the graduate economics program at UChicago in the fall and Novgorodsky is looking into graduate school.

Learning to have aspirations

In selecting students for the class, Amadio said, “We look for deep thinkers. Kids who understand the opportunity they have. We interviewed the top few students at each school. The interviews were amazing, fantastic and jaw-dropping. I have never been prouder of our kids.”

In the two-hour class, the students learn basic economics terms and participate in group activities, including a stock market game they play on the Internet. Two teachers guide discussions during the first hour of the class, before the graduate students join the class via a Skype connection from the UChicago campus.

“I like the interactive aspect of the class,” said student Rachel Watson. “This has helped me better understand how to spend money and gives me some preparation for what I’d like to do later. I’d like to start a business and am interested in selling clothes.”

Judy DeGuilio, an enrichment teacher who co-leads the onsite discussions with Ed Mrosek, director of technology for District 170, said the class was designed to give the eighth-graders a feel for learning at the college level. “The students willingly express their ideas without fear of being incorrect, making for some interesting thought-provoking discussions,” said DeGuilio. 

The students also contribute to a blog, said Mrosek, who displayed the students’ entries during the session.

About that 'free lunch'

The blog conversation for the day revolves around the expression, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Mrosek links to information on the source of the quotation, Milton Friedman, a distinguished UChicago economist.

In their entries, the students pointed out that everything has a price, and even if someone receives something free from the government, that service had to be paid for through taxes.

During the Skype session, the eighth-graders discussed the principle with Brandon, who, with fellow researcher David Novgorodsky, offers an example from campus life. “At the University of Chicago, we frequently have free events where food is served, but they always use that as a reason to get people to show up for something, so it’s not free after all.”

As the session continued, the students took on the creation of a demand curve by charting the impact of the price of candy.

“When prices rise, quantity demand falls,” Brandon told them. He then challenged them with a question: “Can you think of an example where the demand curve is actually more like a straight line—that no matter the cost, people would buy the same quantity?”

“How about buying gasoline?” one student offered.

“Excellent response,” Brandon said.

“Web Economics and Beyond” is allowing the District 170 students to make contributions outside of the classroom as well. “They have made real-world connections,” said DeGuilio, and they’re sharing that knowledge. “They’ve even expressed assisting their parents in some financial decision-making.” 

For List, helping organize the eighth-grade class provided him with an opportunity to facilitate an effective outreach project that could be a companion to his other work in District 170. It also gave List a way to express appreciation for the district’s help in arranging a preschool program. That project is an extension of his research using experimental economics, and like the preschool program, the eighth-grade economics class is an extension of his interest in the value of providing solid education opportunities to all students.

“There is so much at stake and we can affect lives in important ways,” said List. “Look at my own life; I went from a truck driver’s son to the University of Chicago’s Economics Department. Our belief is that everyone deserves a fighting chance, and we are acting on this belief."