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Kathryn Bender (bottom row, left) and her data mentors during one of the Data Enchanted workshops held in the fall semester.
Kathryn Bender (bottom row, left) and her data mentors during one of the Data Enchanted workshops held in the fall semester.

Teaching economics through Taylor Swift

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Bender

Lerner professor creates Swift-themed workshops to help students better understand data analytics

Kathryn Bender, assistant professor of economics in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, was teaching her Introduction to Microeconomics class in early October when the discussion turned to MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets.

Although supply, the stadium’s number of seats, remained fixed, the demand for tickets for the Jets’ upcoming home game against the Kansas City Chiefs had skyrocketed, dramatically increasing prices. The reason? Pop superstar Taylor Swift was rumored to be attending to watch her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

“I noticed in that class there was a lot of excitement, and I had just about everybody’s attention in there, whether they were interested because of football or because of the Taylor Swift aspect. So I thought that was really cool,” Bender said.

Using UD’s Academic Technology Services Paul J. Rickards Jr. Teaching Innovation Grant she’d already secured, Bender quickly jumped on the idea and developed a Swift-themed data visualization workshop series entitled “Data Enchanted: Transforming Numbers into Knowledge.”

She held three 90-minute workshops during the fall semester, which ran from late October through early December: “Ready for It,” an introduction to Stata; “You Belong with Me,” building and structuring data for analysis; and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” transforming and cleaning data for analysis.

The workshops helped UD students learn to utilize Stata, a statistical software package used for data manipulation, visualization, and automated reporting. They were an immediate success, as Bender received over 60 applicants, although she was limited to accepting just 32 due to space limitations.

Though students don’t earn credit for completing the workshops, just a certificate, Bender said they help fill some gaps that aren’t covered in classes.

“I taught an Introduction to Econometrics class last spring, and there’s this gap in the fact that we don’t teach students how to learn about just data itself. I think they’re kind of expected to learn about it, piecing it together from different classes,” Bender said. “This [workshop series] is a way for students to get introduced to thinking about data, how it’s set up, how you can create good visualizations with it … those basics before you get into the analysis.”

Making the workshops Swift-themed helped students pick up concepts more easily. In one session, they pulled Spotify data and statistics to analyze the popularity of Swift’s songs.

“We’ve stuck with Taylor Swift songs and albums so far,“ Bender said. “So all the data sets have been very easy for the students to understand as opposed to something that’s not as familiar for them to think about. They know what a song is, they know what the duration of a song is, those things are all very easy to understand. They’re able to practice these new data skills without having to worry about the content as much, so that’s been really good.”

Emma Abrams, a sophomore environmental and resource economics major, agreed. 

“I wanted to attend this workshop because I’ve always found computers and coding a little bit daunting or overwhelming. But this workshop has made it really approachable and fun to learn,” she said.

“I personally had no background in the software, but I found it very interesting just to open up and see some of the basic commands and functions it has to offer,” Daniela Espada, a junior business analytics major, said. “I’m very much looking forward to the courses and the certification at the end.”

Bender, who said she previously enjoyed Swift’s music but now definitively considers herself a Swiftie, has also incorporated a networking aspect to the workshops. Prior to the first and third sessions, participants made friendship bracelets as a way to break the ice.

“I really liked [giving students] the opportunity to meet people and network beforehand, it made it less scary to talk to people when we were actually in the workshops,” she said. “It’s been really nice because rather than walking into a room and being intimidated, you’re sitting there making bracelets and conversation just kind of flows, so it’s a nice little relaxed environment.”

A few of Bender’s fellow Lerner professors stopped by and even the school’s mascot, YoUDee, made an appearance. 

“Students have been able to talk with other people and other professors and admins during that time, as well as with each other … younger students talking with juniors and seniors,” she said.

Bender describes the sessions, which feature music playing throughout, as therapeutic.

“I can’t tell you how many friendship bracelets I’ve made now, and I’m not a crafty person. I can’t tell you how many times I heard other people saying it is therapeutic. And then the Taylor Swift part just makes it more fun, I think,” she said.

Due to the workshop’s immediate success, Bender is planning on expanding the program during the spring semester. She aims to hold eight workshops, the initial three and then five more, and hopes to make them available for all UD students (they were available only as an undergraduate program in the fall).

“Unfortunately, I did have to tell about half the students who applied (in the fall) that I couldn’t take them,” she said. “We’ve also had interest from grad students, and I think it’d be beneficial for our master’s students and Ph.D. students as well. They’ve all expressed interest.”

Bender said the workshops are sequential, as students would need to attend at least the first three or four workshops before moving on to the rest. Students can earn a certificate for attending, with a gold, silver and bronze level based on the number of workshops they attend.

Following the initial three, the fourth workshop is called “Long Story Short: Presenting Data Efficiently.” Bender is also planning to do a case study based on either Kelce or Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title and has received the Ballon d’Or award as the world’s best soccer player a record eight times, called “End Game.”

Additionally, she hopes to look at a few other programs including exploring data visualization with Tableau and Python software, which could be standalone sessions. The schedule concludes with “Mastermind,” which is specifically a Swift case study.

Bender, who utilizes a group of data mentor students to help her present and answer questions, has scheduled the first three sessions of the spring semester, the next of which will be held March 6 in the Geltzeiler Trading Center in Purnell Hall.

“I’ve been really excited about this, because it’s been fun for me to organize and plan,” Bender said. “And it’s been exciting to see other people, even if they’re not Swifties, at least chuckle at the whole idea of it, and still enjoy it. So it’s been very rewarding.”

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