WASHINGTON: Have you needed to use your high school chemistry recently? Anyone asked you lately who won the US-British war of 1812? Probably not.
But have you taken out a loan to purchase a car or a house or go to college? Looked for a job? Got a credit card? Seen your paycheck disappear more quickly as prices rise?
Those economic issues are factors of daily life, and yet navigating them has not traditionally been taught in US high schools or even required in college.
But more schools are obliging students to take economics or personal finance classes before they go out into the real world full of credit cards and unemployment lines and mortgages.
And with President Donald Trump disputing the accuracy of the widely reported official unemployment rate, the need to understand economic data is seeping beyond the geeky world of economists and statisticians and into the general public.
The trouble is how to lure in students.
Educators have found a new tool to make economics interesting and accessible: a fantasy league competition, not for football but for economic forecasts.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, part of the US central bank system, is on the forefront of trying to make economic and personal finance information accessible to the general public, and especially to students.
America’s next top forecaster
The newest feature is call FREDcast, a forecasting game where students try their hand at estimating four key economic indicators: the unemployment rate, job creation, the inflation-tracking consumer price index, and gross domestic product (GDP), the broad measure of the nation’s goods and services output.
Teachers set up private leagues so students can compete against their classmates for bragging rights and the title of top forecaster.
The leaderboard changes every month, with points awarded based on how close they come to the actual number released by the government, out of a possible 250 for each for a perfect estimate.
Along the way they have lessons that explain how the statistics are calculated, and they learn how much they vary month-to-month, and more importantly, why.
Clearing up the mystery around the economic data is “really what we are aiming for,” said Mary Suiter, the St. Louis Fed’s assistant vice president and economic education officer.
”People live in the economy, data appear in news stories, media, and I think in order to make something of those data you need to understand what they are and what they mean and how they’re measured,” she told AFP.
The fantasy league program just went live in January after two semesters in beta testing, and has reached nearly 1,500 since it began, with 350 players active currently.
Other Federal Reserve district banks have education programmes, but most are focused on things like competitions for college teams to act as central bankers and decide how to move interest rates.
But the St. Louis Fed since 2010 has focused on education for all ages through its “Economic Lowdown” website which provides videos, podcasts and even lesson plans and tests for kindergarten students all the way through college level.
The 60 online courses and 100 videos cover a vast array of economic and personal finance topics, such as what is GDP, different types of unemployment, and credit scores.
Suiter said a million students were enrolled last year from every state in the country. Florida and Georgia had the most because those school systems require either economics or personal finance, and these are “free high-quality programs.”
‘Economics affects my world’
Those programs are important for students because unlike other subjects they study, they will use the information every day, Mike Owyang, a St. Louis Fed economist and assistant vice president, told AFP.
”I was taking a lot of classes in college, like organic chemistry, which don’t affect my real world on a daily basis,” he said. “Economics affects my world on a daily basis.”
Teachers using the program say their students are caught up at first by the competition in the forecasting league, but quickly move on to working to understand how and why the statistics move from month to month.
”It makes for really good teaching tool,” said Laura Jackson Young, economics professor at Bentley University near Boston, Massachusetts.
”They like testing their knowledge, and learning how they can build the best forecast. They ask tons of questions,” she said of her senior-level students.
Rodney Gerdes teaches a college-level economics course at Oakville High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and has been using the Fed’s resources for years. He was one of the first group to use the forecasting game.
”To me it’s kind of like a civics skill,” he said. “They live in a capitalist society, business and economic information is everywhere, and it’s going to really, in certain ways, drive substantial parts of their life.”
But the recent political climate comes into play as well.
”Some of me gets a little cynical with the way news reporting has been lately in politics, and if you know the information you can separate the truths from the half-truths... and recognise bias when it comes to this sort of information.” — AFP