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Teaching the Teachers: Making Economics Fun in K-12

By Bruce Beans

Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle may have dubbed economics "the dismal science," but don't tell that to Dan Frake's Selinsgrove Area High School business students.

Earlier this school year, he taught them about traditional economies by showing a movie clip from Moana, Disney Studio's 2016 hit animated musical. Detailing how much the ancient Polynesian villagers rely on the coconut, they sing in Where You Are:

We use each part of the coconut
That's all we need
We make our nets from the fibers
The water is sweet inside
We use the leaves to build fires
We cook up the meat inside ...
The island gives us what we need.

"That's a prime example of a traditional economy that isn't interested in becoming more economically efficient," says Frake, who this year has also underscored economic and business concepts by showing his students clips from such television comedies as The Office and The Big Bang Theory.

He learned to use those clips in his classrooms by attending free programs offered by the new Center for Economics, Business, and Entrepreneurship Education (CEBEE), which the Sigmund Weis School of Business launched last September. Focusing on innovative, engaging content, the center is providing professional development training for K-12 teachers to increase overall business comprehension and financial literacy among young people in the Susquehanna Valley region and statewide.

"What I've learned from the center has allowed me to inject some humor into my lessons, and the kids get really engaged and appreciate my ability to infuse real-life applications into their lives," says Frake.

The Sigmund Weis School has long provided support to local businesses. The CEBEE, however, is the business school's first major effort to support teachers and their students—an initiative aligned with Susquehanna President Jonathan D. Green's emphasis on service as part of Susquehanna's three-pronged mission to prepare students to achieve, lead and serve.

There is a significant lack of resources for Pennsylvania teachers to learn how to better teach business, economics and entrepreneurship, according to Matthew Rousu, interim dean and professor of economics.

"We want to improve the education for tens of thousands of K-12 students, and the way to do that is to help our teachers," he says.

The goal, adds Emma Fleck, director of the center and associate professor of management, isn't necessarily to just groom future business students or to just reach college-bound students.

"Not all of our students in central Pennsylvania will pursue business degrees and careers or even go to college," she notes. "We want their teachers to be able to get them excited about financial literacy, to develop life skills so that they know how to choose between good and bad credit cards, to become knowledgeable consumers, prudent savers and investors, and to understand the economic impacts of voting."

As of March, through a series of workshops and seminars funded by the Uncommon Individual Foundation and an anonymous donor, the center has introduced innovative pedagogical strategies, content and online resources to nearly 200 K-12 teachers--each of whom teaches an average of 150 students. The presenters have included:

  • DAN KUESTER, director of undergraduate studies in economics at Kansas State University, who talked about using clips from The Big Bang Theory and The Office
  • BRIAN O'ROARK, a finance professor at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, on using The Hunger Games and other dystopian films/novels
  • MICHELLE VACHRIS, an emeritus professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., on using popular novels to explore the intersection between, for instance, Adam Smith, the father of economics, and author Jane Austen
  • ERIN YETTER, senior economic education specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, on using the Berenstain Bears books and other children's literature
  • JAMES TIERNEY, alecturer in economics at Pennsylvania State University, on using clips from children's TV such as Sesame Street and Teen Titans.

Fleck herself discussed exploring superheroes as a way to help students develop creativity and the entrepreneurial mindset.

In addition, the center has directly impacted more than 1,000 students. With the assistance of Frake, who also serves as the Future Business Leaders of America faculty advisor at Selinsgrove High, the center hosted an FBLA Regional Competition that attracted more than 500 high school students. When not competing, they also learned such approaches as how to utilize improvisational theatre techniques to improve their business leadership skills.

Frake and Josh Shipton '01, who was a business major with a finance emphasis, now a business teacher at Cocalico High School in Denver, Lancaster County, agree that the center is filling a significant void.

"In my 14 years I've had very few opportunities to receive training in business-related content," says Shipton. "I and my colleagues are hopeful that Susquehanna's program will continue to provide more opportunities to get information related to business topics."

Following Kuester's workshop, Shipton illustrated the concept of opportunity cost—every decision we make involves giving up something else we could have done instead—by showing his class a clip of The Big Bang Theory. In it, physicist Sheldon Cooper obsessed over whether he should buy a new Sony PlayStation or a Microsoft Xbox video game console.

"The kids love it because I'll have a video clip loaded when they walk into my classroom or, from a spreadsheet Dr. Rousu distributed, I'll have a song like the Beatles' Tax Man playing," Shipton says. He teaches an AP microeconomics course to juniors and seniors, in addition to a stock market course and an introductory economics course available to freshmen through seniors.

"Rather than just some words I've written on the board, it builds excitement for the day."

Following up on the Moana song, Frake also had his Selinsgrove High students play a game. Supplied with beads and thin rope, they divided themselves into small teams to compete making bracelets and necklaces under the norms of three different economic systems:

  • a traditional economy, such as the one in Moana's Polynesian village where they made just a few items, all that they themselves needed, and then took breaks to chant and sing;
  • a command economy, such as a communist system, in which they were required to meet quotas, such as five bracelets; and
  • a free market economy, in which they made whatever items they decided would generate the most profit.

"Instead of reading a passage or a document, when kids get really engaged and are able to apply what they are learning, they retain it much better," says Frake. "And the whole classroom environment is better and less authoritarian."

Rousu himself has used business- and money-related popular songs such as Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones and Price Tag by Jessie J in his own classes at Susquehanna. "There's something about seeing concepts that you are studying in a song or a movie or television clip that really helps it stick," he says. "I've had students come back a year or two later and tell me, 'I heard such-and-such song on the radio and I thought of your class and the topic.'"

Julie Vincent, a junior from Winsted, Conn., who is majoring in business administration and minoring in entrepreneurship and innovation, agrees. "There are so many facets to business that I think the best way to experience all the aspects is through interactive learning," she says. As Fleck's student office assistant, she helped kickstart the center's programming last fall.

Both Rousu and Fleck are pleased and surprised about how many teachers and students the center has reached already.

"When I see either teachers or students engaged in the way that our guest speakers have gotten them engaged, that gets me very happy and excited," says Fleck, who is planning enhancements for the next academic year based on teacher feedback. These include customized outreach work with individual schools; full-day workshops during teacher in-service days; and recording some workshops so that teachers in remote locations can later access the material.

"I would not be the same economics teacher that I am today without the help of the center," says Frake, a business teacher for the past 10 years who is in his first year of teaching economics.

"Normally it takes teaching one or two classes to get the material down pat before you can start creating engaging activities. But the center has helped me by leaps and bounds springboard into a very experienced economics teacher the first time I've done it."



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