It is Monday morning two weeks before summer vacation, and the Steller Secondary students in Mr. Ken Varee’s social studies classroom are shouting. This behavior takes place under the encouraging supervision of UAA economics professors Kyle Hampton and Jim Murphy and research assistant/former student Dan Allen. These students are the lucky few who secured positions in the Experimental Economics Workshop, a special course focusing on the participatory use of economics.
At the end of every semester the students at Steller participate in elective studies called “intensives.” For the students in the Experimental Economics Workshop, the next two weeks will be filled with games, experiments, lectures and, as a grand finale, a trip to Seward to visit to the SeaLife Center, where they’ll experience economics at work in the real world.
“I’d like to think they’re interested in econ,” Mr. Varee explains, “but I think the fact that they can make money was a big draw.”
The shouting is part of the educational process. The students, separated into teams, are playing a game of producers and consumers led by Kyle. Each team has been given two handouts printed with images of red, green and blue poker chips. One paper signifies the number of each color that a particular team can select during a round, and the other shows, in columns, the chip assortments needed by the team. The object of the game is to fill as many columns as possible, with a completed column netting $2 per team member.
“Cha-ching!” says one of the students loudly.
As they began a student raised his hand. “Is it okay to trade?” he asked. Kyle pretended this was a new idea but allowed it. They were only 45 minutes into their intensive and this group of 9-12 graders had already figured out that collaboration is key.
“Economics is about cooperation,” says Kyle. “Every time that you spend your money, that is an act of cooperation around the world.”
The workshop is a product of the UAA Experimental Economics Laboratory, a program created by Professor Vernon Smith, the original Rasmuson Chair and Nobel Prize laureate. Subsequent professors holding the Chair have helped the program continue and progress (including Jim, who was the second Rasmuson Chair).
The Rasmuson Chair was created through an endowment established by Elmer Rasmuson. Bringing the workshop to Steller was the idea of Jim’s son, Ned, who is a student in the intensive.
The intensive is sponsored by IFREE and Rasmuson Foundation. The Alaska Railroad provided discounted train tickets and Stardock Entertainment donated 8 licenses so the students can play Offworld Trading Company, an economic strategy game (“Save Humanity. Turn a profit,” reads its description).
When students registered, they paid to cover the train and Alaska SeaLife Center admission. Over the course of the intensive, students will earn cash during the games, and they will have the opportunity to more than recover their initial investment.
When the game is over Kyle asks the students, “Why do human beings cooperate?”
The answers fly –
“Because they’re social creatures.”
“Some people need different things than others.”
“Yes,” Kyle says, and then he ties it back into the game. “If you cooperate, everyone in the room can do better.”
There is short, quiet moment of reflection. It is 10:00 a.m. and despite the approach of summer vacation, the students are fully engaged.
A hand is raised.
“Yes?” Kyle asks.
“When do we get our cash?”