January 30, 2004

SIUC helping high schools teach basic economics

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. --A new Office of Economic Education, headquartered at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will help the region's high schools teach their students basic economics: everything from wise use of credit cards to how financial markets and the domestic and world economies work.

"Students need to know, for example, not just how to manage their money but how the economy functions," said College of Agriculture economist Kim S. Harris, who will oversee the new office.

"Inflation, recession, government spending -- these affect our lives every day as consumers, employees or employers. We're all players in that thing we call the economy."

SIUC's office, one of eight such university-based centers in Illinois, is affiliated with the Illinois Council on Economic Education, which in turn is sponsored by its national counterpart.

"The National Council on Economic Education is the premier source for economic and financial education programs in America and abroad for K through 12 students," Harris said.

"It cooperates with a nationwide network of state councils and about 225 university-based centers to reach more than 100,000 teachers serving some seven million students each year."

A group of business and industry leaders concerned about the economic and financial literacy of the country's citizens founded the council in 1949.

"Their solution was to create a library of classroom resources for children K through 12 and then set up state councils to get the teachers interested," Harris said.

"The state councils also find universities that can serve as grass-roots resources in training the teachers to use the material."

The material includes everything from lesson plans with guides for teachers and parents, to student activity books, a CD-ROM with animated movies, games and simulations, and a companion Web site.

"It focuses on getting the student involved -- it's active learning," Harris said. "I've been very impressed with the quality of the material. It's excellent."

To participate in the program, school officials must prepare grant proposals that outline how they plan to work economics and finance topics into existing coursework and describe new teaching projects or courses that could enhance student learning.

The state council selects as many as 10 proposals each year, handing out grants ranging from $6,000 to $8,000 to the schools to support the proposed activities and help with professional development. In addition, it provides smaller grants to the closest economic education office.

"We help with content and provide at least six hours of training for faculty -- they decide what areas they want that to cover," Harris said.

"We can also act as a resource in putting a grant proposal together. The next announcement about new grant proposals will appear in April."

High schools in Carbondale and Vienna have already enrolled in the program.

"Vienna wants to create an in-house bank so students can learn not only how a bank functions but can be exposed to some personal finance," Harris said.

"Carbondale will be offering a new economics class this fall. Lots of high schools teach consumer economics, but to teach a pure economics class is fairly unusual."

Harris said his department, which is changing its name to "Agribusiness Management and Applied Economics" sometime this fall, decided to sign on with the state council as an economic education office because faculty members thought its goals meshed well with their expertise and their mission.

"We're applied economists who teach business management and finance as well as economics," he said. "And if students coming out of our area high schools have an interest in going into finance as a career after this, all the better."

Furthermore, Harris said, an economic education office provides the sort of regional service that is one goal of Southern at 150, a blueprint for the development of the University by 2019, its 150th anniversary.

Over the coming year, Harris will be putting together an advisory board for the office, talking with regional school superintendents about the economics education program and attending conferences aimed at principals to fill them in on what the SIUC office can offer them.

Those who would like more information can call Harris at 618/453-1706 or e-mail him at ksharris@siu.edu.