|Royerton Elementary School students (from left) Nate Osner, Kaylee Nichols and Kaity Bibbs use Play-Doh® to learn about producers and consumers. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
There's more in a can of Play-Doh® than blue dinosaurs, orange planets and purple hot dogs. At Muncie's Royerton Elementary School, students find the economic philosophies of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman in every hue.
The colorful clay is one tool that Royerton teachers use to teach students economics. They've also turned to music, science and even Aesop's fables to show students the roles consumers and producers play in an economy.
"The kids get very excited about learning economics," says Deborah Christopher, a Royerton fifth-grade teacher. "They are learning real-life lessons. The materials we use are very good."
Those materials—and many of the ideas Christopher and her fellow Royerton teachers employ—come from the Indiana Council for Economic Education (ICEE). ICEE is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Council for Economic Education and Purdue University's Department of Agricultural Economics.
For the past 54 years, ICEE has helped Indiana teachers successfully navigate the complex and often intimidating subject of economics—a field of study that has been dubbed "the dismal science."
What ICEE offers is anything but bland. Play Dough Economics, where students use modeling clay to make "products" and learn about supply and demand, Gross Domestic Product and 13 other consumer/producer concepts, is one example of the council's nontraditional economics curriculum. Another is The Classroom Mini-Economy, in which students experience entrepreneurship by operating their own classroom economy.
Recently, ICEE debuted Herschel's World of Economics, a six-lesson DVD for elementary-age children. In the DVD, kids learn basic economic principles such as scarcity and opportunity cost through the comic misadventures of a puppet dog named "Herschel."
Economics education does not have to be boring to be effective, says Harlan Day, ICEE's executive director. Day and his staff of four develop much of the curriculum ICEE distributes.
"The council's mission," Day says, "is to improve economic literacy among students, so that they become productive members of the economy and are better prepared to make sound financial decisions.
"If we can accomplish that in such a way that students enjoy learning, that's all the better."
Learn it they must. The State Board of Education plans to add social studies to the subjects covered by ISTEP tests. In Indiana, economics is included in social studies curricula.
Historically, economics has received scant attention at many schools. A report based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that only 42 percent of American high school seniors were considered "proficient" in economics in 2006. In a separate study, Purdue researchers found that Indiana students in kindergarten through grade three receive just eight minutes of social studies and economics instruction each day.
"Economics education tends to be slighted because there are so many other subjects teachers have to teach, or they don't feel qualified to teach economics," Day says. "So teachers wind up avoiding it, and it doesn't get taught as much as English and reading and even other social studies."