Discovering Economics – Schools Outreach Event

Geethanjali Selvaretnam and Karen Clancey

(Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow)

Lack of Economics in Scottish schools

Economics is a discipline which provides the tools to analyse various choices made by individuals, businesses, financial institutions, policy makers, government etc.. A degree in Economics can lead to wide-ranging good careers for students.1 It is of concern that many schools in Scotland (mostly state schools) do not offer Economics as a separate subject but embed it within business studies.  Lack of awareness of the nature and benefits of Economics can result in students who may have an aptitude for this line of study to not even consider it as their degree choice. Although it is true that the flexible degree structure in Scottish universities can pave the way for students who may not have thought of studying Economics, it is important to raise awareness and inspire school students to think about studying economics.2

RES Discover Economics Grant Scheme

Given our concern about the lack of exposure to Economics in Scottish schools, we were delighted when the Royal Economics Society (RES) called for applications to support school outreach events.  The Discover Economics Grant Scheme to promote awareness of Economics in schools was advertised at the beginning of the academic year 2018/19 and stated that preference would be given to events that aimed to increase diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, schools etc.

As an academic involved in the teaching and leading Economics programmes, I (Selvaretnam) put forward an application for funds to support a one-day event for schools around Glasgow as well as a road trip around Scotland conducting similar events. The application indicated that administrative cost of running the event and venue would be borne by the institution. RES rightly decided we should start small before going places! We were glad to secure a grant to support a one-day event, The grant was to cover the travel expenses for up to 150 school students, hospitality for the day and a gift of an easy-read book on economics for each attendee.

Administration and Publicity

Having secured this grant, the Adam Smith Business School (ASBS) supported the event with all the administration cost and token gifts. Administrative support was provided by Karen Clancey, the Undergraduate Programmes Officer. We decided to have the event on the same day as a University Open Day so that the day could end with the students attending the talk about the Economics degree. The University Admissions office supported us with contact information for schools and a lovely venue for the event. The spacious hall enabled the students to sit in groups and move around and interact easily. There was a separate area adjacent to the hall to welcome and register the attendees as well as for catering staff to organise the food and refreshments without disturbing the event.

Letters of invitation were emailed to schools within a 30-mile radius of the University, explaining the event as an exposure to the discipline of Economics with talks, discussions and games as well as informing them of the availability of funds to cover the travelling cost and lunch. The schools were invited to apply for the event with the information regarding the number of students and accompanying staff.

The Participants

The objective was to reach out to more state schools which do not teach Economics as a separate subject. A total of 55 school students from 7 state schools and 3 independent schools attended the event. The students and those involved in leading the event were diverse with respect to race and gender. We were pleasantly surprised at the gender balance of 28 females and 27 males. Four of our current students as well as four colleagues also participated and interacted with the school students

The Day

The event was open for registration at 9 am with some refreshments and a welcome gift pack for each student included a book (one of the Freakonomics series by Levitt and Dubner), pens and sticky notes. The aim for the day was to give a glimpse to the wonders of economics and raise some awareness and curiosity. The day was designed so that the school students would be exposed to the different facets of Economics.

The event consisted of two short talks, group discussions and opportunity to play some games to help learn some concepts in economics. The students were seated in groups of 8 for the whole session, which allowed them to interact with each other. We were confident that the activities, talks, discussion, and the book would enable them to appreciate how economics can be applied to our lives. The day ended with the students listening to our University Open Day talk about the benefits of an economics degree and what it entails.

Talks by Academics

After an introduction to the event and a synopsis about what the study of economics is all about, there were two short talks by academics in Economics, each followed by a discussion.

  1. Thomas to Greta – Environment and ecological concerns

Given the importance of environment and sustainability, an academic colleague, Tony Gloyne, took us through the years about how this issue has evolved. He explained how economics is very much part of sustaining natural resources and impacting behaviour to preserve the environment. This enthralling talk ended with an opportunity for students to discuss and individually come up with at least one change in behaviour themselves to have a positive effect on the environment.

We were able to discuss some of the suggestions the students put forward. One student said he would reduce eating meat while some students mentioned they will recycle more and reduce the use of plastic. We discussed the success of the charge on plastic bags in supermarkets. Several students said they already relied on public transport now but were not sure if they would continue the practice when they could afford their own vehicle. A couple of students volunteered to walk to school and other places more than they did. A few students said they would buy electric cars when they have the license and money! This was followed by others who pointed out it would be better to use bicycles or similar modes of transport. Tony, being a keen cyclist was very pleased about this! Several students were very concerned about the state of the ocean and beaches. I told them about volunteers cleaning the local beach in an area I lived. There were animated discussions about what can be done to take care of the ocean cleanliness.

2. Externalities: x + x = 3x!

The second talk was given by me (Geethanjali Selvaretnam). I introduced students to an important concept in economics – externalities, which is the effect on third parties who are not involved in the transaction, as a result of production or consumption. In other words, it is a spillover effect. I explained several examples of positive and negative spillovers to cement their understanding of this concept. We can enjoy a beautiful garden of a neighbour who does all the hard work, or I might have to endure cigarette smoke of someone else etc. This led to us thinking about how government can intervene to reduce negative externalities such as passive smoking. Students then discussed among themselves in their groups to come up with examples of externalities with the staff and undergraduates in each group nudging the discussions appropriately.

Economic Games  

We played two games, which were thoroughly enjoyed by the students. After each game, I led a discussion and explained the economic concepts one learns from these games. We found inspiration from this website by The Economic Network which have many ideas for economics games which can be used by teachers, Classroom Experiments & Games | The Economics Network

  1. The Bidding game

We played a bidding game where all the groups could bid openly and outbid each other with the highest bidder winning by paying what was bid. A biscuit packet worth £4.25 went for £4. Then a £5 note was put up for bidding. During the bidding, groups stepped back one by one, so that we ended up with two groups battling a long bidding war. Once it got to £5, one group jumped from £5 to £10!  This allowed us to discuss why different groups dropped off at different points. I explained the concepts of sunk cost and preferences. The games also presented the opportunity to explain how economic models can incorporate factors other than monetary value in decision making such as the utility derived from the thrill of winning. 

2. Public good game

This game enabled students to learn about public good behaviour. Each student was given 4 tokens and they sat in their groups. Without the knowledge of other members, they individually put aside the number of tokens for a public good. After the first round, the public good amount in each group was revealed.

Then we played the game again with another 4 tokens each. We observed that most groups increased the contribution towards the public good. However, we were intrigued that one group’s public good contribution went down to zero! This is because they observed that most people had not contributed, so the few who had previously contributed also followed suit.

The contribution towards the public good in both rounds were added and the group with the highest amount received a a tin of biscuits to share. The most ‘selfish’ who retained the highest number of tokens also received a present. Although we had a good laugh, we reflected the sobering realities of what this game taught us.

Lessons learned for the future

Out of the 38 attendees who returned the feedback forms, 33 indicated they have enjoyed it and would recommend. Students participated in the games and discussions with enthusiasm. The talks were pitched at the right level, length and on appropriate topics. It was heartening to see how the interaction became better as time went on, facilitated by dedicated group discussions and economics games. We can recommend this format for similar events.

The cost of transport being paid for was definitely an incentive and we should continue this practice. Lunch, however, was not to their taste and did not provide the interactive opportunity we hoped for. Some students brought their own and others went out to get some lunch. It might be better to have this as a bigger event with a proper sit-down meal. This will allow the students to have a chat with an academic and a current student at each table.

Expectations need to be managed. Five students have indicated they would not recommend the event. We notice that 3 of these students made positive comments about the talk on externalities and requested more ‘economics teaching’. They are probably students who study economics in school. We should have made it clear that the talks are geared towards students who don’t do economics in school. We can have a separate event for students who already have an interest and knowledge in economics.

We aimed for 80 students with the caveat that if there was over subscription for these activities, priority would be given to schools qualifying for widening participation. However, there was no over subscription. This could be because there were delays in finalising the event and sending out the invitations. We sent the invitations only 3 weeks before the event.  We realise that invitations should have been sent earlier with follow ups. If we have this as an annual event around the same time, the schools would be more prepared and better engaged. Despite sending out the invitations to schools later than we would have liked, the response to our invitation was positive enough to indicate that this type of engagement activity was of interest to secondary school students. 

We continue to find ways to interact with schools and have been in touch with RES who have an initiative to use students and academic champions to promote Discover Economics. This is the type of external engagement which we should be involved in, making a positive contribution to school students in our local area and further afield.

1. Belfield, C., Britton, J., Buscha, F., Dearden, L., Dickson, M., Van Der Erve, L., Sibieta, L., Vignoles, A., Walker, I. and Zhu, Y. (2018). The relative labour market returns to different degrees. Institute of Fiscal Studies.

2. Happ, R., Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O. & Förster, M. (2018). How prior economic education influences beginning university students’ knowledge of economics. Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training 10 (5).

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