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Hamilton Magazine - Winter 2022

Among economics majors, the underrepresentation of women, students of color, and first-generation college students is chronic and widespread, and in 2018, Hamilton’s Economics Department made a significant move to combat the problem. It revamped its curriculum.

The department changed its introductory courses to make them more appealing to a broader range of students, and for that it received national recognition — an Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from INSIGHT into Diversity.

The reform had two other major goals: to broaden students’ perceptions of the issues that economists study and what economics prepares students to do after college (it isn’t just working on Wall Street) and to teach students the introductory statistics they need to use sophisticated data science as they progress through the major. The new curriculum accomplished both those things in the first two years of reform, according to Professor of Economics Ann Owen, who is also the Henry Platt Bristol Chair of Public Policy, and Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom. Their findings appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Journal of Economic Education.

Owen and Hagstrom also observed another benefit — female students received higher grades compared to female students who studied economics before the change in the curriculum. That suggests that the revised course was more effective at teaching a broader range of students, Owen says.

At least initially, the professors noted that the percentage of economics majors from underrepresented groups did not increase, largely because the new curriculum proved to be more attractive to all students — overall, the number of economics majors went up, including the number of underrepresented students. But with the entire Economics Department committed to reform, Owen says, the push for change will continue.

“I think where we are right now is that curricular reform is part of that, but it’s not the whole thing, so we’re having conversations about other things that we might do to have appeal to a broader segment of students,” she explains.

The results don’t show short-term or quick shifts in the composition of students deciding to concentrate in economics, Hagstrom says. 

“How this plays out in the longer run remains to be seen,” he adds. “However, we can say that every student who takes this course will gain a better understanding of the degree to which inequality and diversity are central to the understanding of economics, of what economists do, and what students will see in their courses should they continue to take courses in economics.”

This class pushed me to major in economics because I’m someone who’s definitely more interested in looking at issues of inequality and microeconomics.

The Details

The department changed its Principles of Economics sequence from two semesters to a single course that combines introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics. The new curriculum increases the amount of econometrics in the courses required for majors, and it includes a new introductory course that students take after the “principles” course.

Economic Theory and Evidence integrates principles of economics and statistics with a theme of inequality. Unlike the previous intro courses, it incorporates six statistics lab assignments, which are held during a class period that might otherwise be used for lecture or discussion. The approach exposes students to empirical methods and employs active learning strategies that can be effective for a broad range of students.

“It also systematically exposed students to using economic theory and methods to understand the causes and consequences of inequality, including social, structural, and institutional features of the economy that are often overlooked in a traditional introductory sequence,” Owen and Hagstrom wrote.

One of the labs, for example, asked the students to seek and evaluate evidence for partisan gerrymandering. Another, based on a 2004 American Economic Review article, had students test for evidence of labor market discrimination based on applicants’ names.

Avani Pugazhendhi ’22 and Josue Herrera Rivera ’24 both favor the course focus on inequality and how the labs allow them to apply the principles they’ve studied. Pugazhendhi is an economics major who minors in environmental studies; Herrera Rivera intends to double major in economics and anthropology. They both studied economics in high school and began college already interested in the subject.

“This class pushed me to major in economics because I’m someone who’s definitely more interested in looking at issues of inequality and microeconomics, and so I think it was good to get exposure to that,” says Pugazhendhi, who was a teaching assistant for the course. She considers the course a starting point for understanding issues of inequality through economics and to “centering marginalized experiences/narratives within economics.”

Rivera is interested in poverty work and says the course gave him a better understanding of the processes related to poverty — and of his own position in society. Students looked at issues such as sexism, racism in the workplace, or implicit biases that people have. “And we saw tangible, statistical evidence of how these things manifest,” he says.

In Owen’s experience, students across the disciplines are interested in the theme of inequality. “To help them think systematically about causes and consequences, they all find that interesting. And then although they don’t like the work involved in doing the labs, they really actually do like doing the labs,” she says.

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