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Aisha Emory, Kevin He, Diya Ganguly and Charles Sobocinski
Kevin He (second from left) is getting hands-on experience in economics research while still in high school by doing a project on water PFAS and filters and collecting that data with Aisha Emory (far left), Diya Ganguly (second from right) and Charles Sobocinski (far right) through the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Engaging in applied economics

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

High school students get hands-on experience in experimental and applied economics

The field of economics historically has had disproportionately fewer women than men as well as a lack of minority representation. A 2020 economics panel at the Allied Social Science Associations annual meeting said reforms to introductory courses could help solve this problem. 

Work the University of Delaware’s Center for Experimental and Applied Economics is doing with students before college could be key to getting over this hurdle. 

Experimental and applied economics are all about exploring decision-making, behavior and why people make the choices they make. The center has offered a handful of high school and pre-college students volunteer opportunities so they can get an early taste of what it means to conduct research in economics.

“Women and underrepresented groups are less likely to study economics,” said Leah Palm-Forster, an associate professor in applied economics and statistics and the director for the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics. “They’re less likely to continue in the field of economics for graduate school or move into faculty positions. We feel it’s really important, in order to support this pipeline, to think early about K-12 education.”

The two high schoolers and one student taking a gap year who have volunteered and interned with the center within the last year found out about it through connections with UD faculty, staff or through cold emailing the center. Palm-Forster said students joined economic experiments already underway, helping to recruit participants and collect data.

“The real benefit is understanding what it means to do economics, what it means to be an economist,” Palm-Forster said. “I think a lot of times in high school, or even as an undergraduate student, students go to class in a traditional lecture setting and they’re learning about economics but it doesn’t feel as relevant to them personally.”

Learning the ropes

Kevin He, a senior at Newark Charter, was paired with a UD student over the summer to facilitate an economic experiment for the center. They set up a table outside of UDairy Creamery’s flagship location in Newark to conduct a study on “forever chemicals” (PFAS) and how willing people would be to pay for filters and testing kits.

He said he quickly learned economics is a challenging field. 

“I really learned how difficult it is to maintain one project,” He said. “I learned how difficult it is to prepare for it.”

Something that surprised him was learning it took months for the center to think of a hypothesis and plan around it and that getting people to participate in economic experiments takes time.

But He said the experience opened his eyes to pursuing something economics-based as a career. He even learned a handful of soft skills, such as patience. Not everyone who visited the creamery wanted to take part in the experiment, and He had to accept that.

“I was sitting at a table trying to get people to participate [in the PFAS experiment] for like four to five hours at a time,” He said. “The sheer amount of people turning me down was kind of a reality check and made me be more patient.” 

Aisha Emory, a lab coordinator with CEAE, was his main on-site supervisor. Emory said she noticed He was more reserved when he first started with the center.

“One of the things about being a researcher is you have to get out of that bubble and be a little more social,” Emory said.

And that’s exactly what He did.

“I think his social skills definitely increased,” Emory said. “I noticed more smiles, more laughter, more comfortability around people.”

Pranav Padmanabhan, a University of Chicago sophomore studying mathematics and physics, interned at CEAE from November 2021 to June 2022 while he was taking a gap year. He worked on three different projects, including one inspired by groundwater management challenges in Delaware. 

In that project, researchers studied how people extract scarce resources when there is uncertainty about the abundance of the resource available. That project built on the results from a previous study led by CEAE researchers that was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.  

“I got an understanding of what economics field research really looks like,” Padmanabhan said. “There were two aspects to it. There was the aspect of people just playing decision games, and seeing the reactions of people and understanding how that could be used to create models. There’s also the aspect of going out and meeting actual homeowners.”

Padmanabhan himself didn’t go out to meet with homeowners about groundwater, but he got insight into it through reviewing transcripts of homeowners’ conversations with CEAE researchers.

The center has even helped students who may be interested in areas other than economics find a place there. Cara Huang, a senior at Newark Charter, is interested in marketing and business and volunteered with CEAE in August. She created a Google form for volunteers to select their T-shirt sizes. 

“I wanted to get more insights into the business side because that is something I’m personally interested in,” Huang said. “I wanted to get more experience before going to college to really decide to see if this is something I'm going to major in.” 

Huang said that as her schedule permits, she will continue to volunteer with the center throughout the school year.

Building a ‘more inclusive program’

Palm-Forster said CEAE would like to expand the program in the future and work with more high school students. That goes back to the challenge economists have faced of attracting more diverse candidates to their field.

For the program to expand, Palm-Forster said the center needs to reach students who may not have reached out to them first, as Huang, Padmanabhan and He all did.

“Moving forward, we want to build a more inclusive program by partnering with local high schools to engage students who may not be aware of CEAE and the opportunities to use economic experiments to investigate important societal issues,” Palm-Forster said.

Palm-Forster said she wants to identify funding opportunities so high school students can pursue paid internships with the center. That’s especially important, she said, in order to engage students who might rely on income from part-time jobs. 

CEAE’s mission includes nurturing “a diverse and inclusive community” engaged in research and results. To accomplish that mission, economics needs more diversity behind the wheel. Palm-Forster said allowing high school students to gain hands-on experience with the center is a key piece of the puzzle.

“My hope is that it increases diversity in our field over time,” Palm-Forster said. “Of course, we're just one part of this broader mission to do that. But all of these efforts help promote economics and promote our field to a broader group of people.”

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