As fall semester begins, all across the United States, new graduate students in economics will begin a course in mathematical economics, designed to provide them with the math techniques they’ll need to study advanced economic theory.
UNCG is no exception to this. New MA students arrive in early August to begin ECO 619, affectionately known as “math boot camp”. The intensive course meets 5 days a week and begins 2 weeks before the fall semester officially begins. Taught by Stephen Layson, the course both reviews concepts students learned in their undergraduate courses in calculus and mathematical economics and introduces new techniques like advanced growth models and differentiation with multiple choice variables.
Why is a course like math econ even necessary? According to Steve, “Economists use the same mathematical techniques presented in the standard calculus courses offered in math departments, but we place a different significance on the interpretation of our results than mathematicians do.
“For example, any good math student can differentiate an equation in which Q is the dependent variable and K and L are explanatory variables. He or she can even explain that the partial of K with respect to Q represents the instantaneous rate of change of the dependent variable caused by a very small change in the independent variable.
“However, economists recognize that this equation, known as the Cobb-Douglas function, provides a measure of the ‘marginal rate of technical substitution’ — the relationship between two inputs, capital (K) and labor (L) that will produce a fixed level of output, Q. It’s an important concept, used in both micro- and macroeconomic models.”
Undergraduates at UNCG get their introduction to mathematical economics in Steve’s ECO 319 course; ECO 619 reviews that material and expands on it.
But what do you do if you’re a new student in the MA in Applied Economics program and your undergraduate program didn’t offer math econ?
Enter “math boot camp prep”, a self-paced, non-credit review of introductory math econ.
Department head Stuart Allen recognized that not all colleges offer a course equivalent to UNCG’s ECO 319. It is less likely to be part of the curriculum in schools that do not offer graduate degrees in economics. Stu was concerned that prospective students from such schools — many of whom were otherwise likely to do well in our MA in Applied Economics program — would be at a disadvantage when they began their graduate work at UNCG.
His solution? Provide a resource new students could use to fill in the gap between the calculus courses they took in their undergradute degrees and the math econ they’d need to succeed in ECO 619 and beyond.
Stu hired an undergraduate student, David Friedrich, to videotape Steve Layson’s lectures in the Spring 2012 offering of ECO 319 and made copies of those videotaped lectures available to incoming MA students who wanted to review and prepare for fall’s math boot camp.
After discussing the project with John Cocking, one of the Bryan School’s instructional technology consultants, Stu concluded the most efficient distribution system would be web-based. John agreed to work with Jean Rosales, a member of the Department’s support staff, to create the boot camp prep online “class”.
Jean recalls, “The project was technically easy but labor-intensive. We had to convert 40 hours of videos from the format in which the video camera recorded them into a format that could be easily read by commonly available video players. Fortunately, Preston Bass, a graduate student working in the Department’s main office, was willing to learn how to do that conversion. He did a great job of converting all the videos.
“Preston discovered that the video camera automatically divided what had been recorded into a series of files that were all about 15 minutes long. We had to learn how to use the video editing software to merge the short files back into longer files that contained all the information presented in a 40- to 45-minute-long lecture.”
Stu and Jean agreed that preparing the review tapes was a good use of differential tuition funds, so Jean was authorized to hire graduate students to work for her during the summer to edit the tapes and make them easier to view. Jean’s crew of “elves” were each given hard drives with 4 or 5 video lessons and were asked to edit out extraneous material and to develop supporting materials like sample problems to help viewers practice the techniques presented in the videos.
The boot camp prep site went “live” on June 1, 2013 and is now available to any student who has confirmed he/she will be joining the MA program. “Students can find the link to the Boot Camp Prep site on the Department’s Econ Grad Students Blackboard organization,” explains Jean. “The site itself is a WordPress site and can be accessed directly, but going through Blackboard will help us gather some basic data on how often students access the site. Stats like that are always helpful in demonstrating how useful a project like this is in practice.”
The site is ready to use but Jean doesn’t think it is finished yet. “I still need to prepare captions for about 10 videos. I would also like to do more editing of the videos. It’s hard to sit through a 45-minute video; it would be nice if we could edit each class down to a group of four or five videos, each of which is 5 to 8 minutes long and focuses on a specific concept. That would make it easier for students to go directly to the concept they want instead of having to fast-forward through material they already understand.
“The site also needs more practice problems. It’s one thing to sit back and watch Dr. Layson solve a problem for you. It’s something entirely different to solve the problem yourself. Ideally, we’d have four or five practice problems students can use to improve their skills and confidence in applying math econ concepts.”
Are those improvements coming soon?
“Well, they’re on the wish list. I see the math boot camp prep site as a work in progress. What we have now is a good start. I’m sure we’ll be adding improviements in the future.”