Wednesday, April 24, 2019

PBL- Problem Based Learning by Mike Siekkinen

Many teachers may have heard the term Problem Based Learning (PBL) but have not attempted this somewhat-new educational strategy. Our school has been making the shift to PBL over the last three years, with the last teachers receiving formal training this past school year.

In a nutshell, PBL is taking real world problems and presenting them to students to research and attempt to solve. It involves all curriculum areas and can be done using a regular class schedule or as a part of a school day specifically set aside to do the PBL.

Ideally, a societal problem is addressed and then each curriculum area (math, science, social studies, and language arts) would determine, based on state standards, what part of the problem solving could be accomplished within their areas. Ideally all are involved, but sometimes this is not the case.

For instance, perhaps a science unit was covering water and teachers wanted to do a PBL on this topic. LA decides they will have students conduct research on water pollution and write a point paper on the subject using curriculum standards in the form of an informational essay. Science will do principles of fluid flow and have students use computer animations and hands-on displays of how water moves. Social studies could do water travel in the historical period they are studying and compare and contrast how things have changed. Perhaps math is not doing anything they can relate, so does not take part in this particular PBL unit.

The guidelines for PBL state that this is fine and curriculum areas need not “force fit” activities if they do not fit with standards taught. We found students enjoy choosing the direction they take based on interests. Guidelines with the PBL are such that standards relate to the unit but allow for some freedom of choice for students. If you have not tried this educational approach in the past, give it a shot. Our school is on board with this and it also works well with STEM activities.

mike_s_blogDr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

econlife - When Cash Is Not the Best Thank You by Elaine Schwartz


Assume you are going to a friend’s home for dinner. Having had no time to pick up a bottle of wine, instead you give your host $30.

Nobel laureate Alvin Roth calls that a repugnant transaction.

Everyday Repugnant Transactions

You can express your appreciation for a dinner at someone’s home with flowers and wine but not money. California says any restaurant serving foie gras will be fined as much as $1000. We have wedding registries so givers can be sure their gift matches what the bride and groom want. The other way is cash that, in most cultures (but not all), is inappropriate.

So yes, there are certain things we are not supposed to pay for. And when we do, the transaction is regarded as “repugnant.” It is a transaction that some people do not want others to engage in.

Medical Repugnant Transactions

In the U.S. selling a kidney is illegal. Considered a repugnant transaction, exchanging dollars for organs is called immoral by many people. They also worry about the poor being taken advantage of and commodifying a body part.

Kidney disease, however, is one of the top ten causes of death in the U.S. When someone needs a donor, the most likely possibility is a relative’s kidney but it might not match. And because people cannot sell them, the supply of kidneys among strangers is less than it might be.

WSJ recently told the story of a journalist whose brother needed a kidney. Although her own kidney did not match what he needed, she still could help him get one. The first step was giving her kidney to someone else.

This was the path of her kidney:



The idea of an exchange pool came from Alvin Roth. Hoping to help more donors and recipients find each other, he figured out how to bring them together. The key was to create kidney exchanges that are based on multiple pairs. With single pairs, Sue gives a kidney to Donna and Dave gives his to Sam. Moving to three pair and four pair exchanges, the complexities multiply but so too do the number of beneficiaries.

Our Bottom Line: Markets

Repugnant transactions create a conflict between market efficiency and morality. So Dr. Roth figured out how a non-money market could become more efficient.  As he explains in his book, markets work best when they are “thick” and avoid congestion. They also need simple and safe rules. “Thick” markets have many participants. Non-congested markets avoid the gridlock created by too many participants. For example, a congested market could have 1000 farmers each selling wheat. Because grouping the wheat into categories minimizes decision-making, you would lessen the congestion. And finally, as much as Adam Smith promoted laissez-faire markets with minimal government interference, safety rules can be crucial.

Al Roth constructed matching algorithms through which non-money markets could be thick, non-congested, simple, and safe. He made it possible to diminish the inefficiencies created by avoiding repugnant transactions.

My sources and more: If you want to meet Alvin Roth and hear more about repugnant transactions, HiddenBrain is the perfect start. Then, the LA Times has more on California’s food prohibitions. But if you read just one article, do go to WSJ for Yogita Patel’s kidney story. Finally, if you have the time, Roth’s book was good.


Please note that several of today’s sentences were in a previous econlife post and our featured image is from Pixabay.



Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

econlife - When Awards Give Us More or Less Than We Expect by Elaine Schwartz


An award solved a problem at German Wikipedia. It had been typical for someone to write only one article.

But then they created an award. People who wrote multiple entries got a special badge printed on their profile page. Their names were also listed near the award’s description. While the recognition had a benefit, the cost to Wikipedia was minimal. Before it existed, 35% of their writers submitted another article. Afterwards, 42%.

For Wikipedia, an award did what it was supposed to do. Others have not.


Awards That Backfire

In one study, students who got a “perfect attendance award” subsequently diminished the days they went to school. Researchers have hypothesized that the recipients realized it was okay to do less. They concluded that awards should not honor what you are supposed to do.

At econlife, we’ve written about Olympic medal winners. Of course the gold medal winners are the happiest but so too are the bronze recipients. However, many silver medalists are not quite as ecstatic. The reason? Because the gold was their focus.

Recipients could also be unhappy when too many awards are given. We might call this phenomenon award inflation. Or, you might devalue an award when giving it to people who don’t deserve it. If a recipient is a friend, family, or someone getting unearned adulation, then the award loses some of its credibility.

Funny Awards

Sometimes a “fake” award can make fun of the real thing and still generate admiration for the recipients. Halle Berry received a Worst Actress Golden Raspberry (a Razzie) for her performance in Catwoman (1/4 from Roger Ebert; 3.3/10 from IMDb ). During an acceptance speech that mimicked the Academy Awards, she warmly thanked Warner Brothers and all the people it takes to create so bad a film.

If you are a fan of The Office (as am I), you will enjoy this Dundie award ceremony. For some smiles, do take a look:





Our Bottom Line: Boosting the Market

Awards are a social experience. Group appreciation is supposed to inspire certain behaviors like community service or high grades. At work, management could be saying thank you for many years of service or the armed forces might want to honor bravery. Most Nobel Prizes are for scholarly achievements.

Because awards exist in social territory, they complement the market. The law of supply says we produce more when price climbs higher. But when cash is not enough, awards provide an extra incentive. Sort of like an energy bar, they give a boost to the market (and to German Wikipedia).

My sources and more: Thanks to Hidden Brain for an awards podcast that provided most of my facts.


Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

econlife - Why Times Should Change by Elaine Schwartz


Through a very unscientific online survey, I just concluded that Starbucks opens earlier on the U.S. West Coast. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, we can enjoy our grande Caramel Macchiato at either 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. For NYC, it was 5:30 or 6:00.

The difference takes me to a proposal that relates to DST (Daylight Saving Time) and the hour we lost this morning. So let’s start there.

DST History

The DST idea has been around for a long time. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin suggested (somewhat sarcastically) more morning light would let us conserve candles. And, for some reason, DST history commemorates George Vernon Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist who, in 1895, wanted more evening light to study his insects.

In the U.S., we have to look to 1918 when the Congress included a DST clause in time zone legislation. Hoping to move the clocks forward every May 31, instead they created a huge flap. On one side, farmers objected saying their cows could not be milked and their work could not begin in dark wet fields while baseball team owners cheered that later games would boost attendance. Convinced that more women would shop after work, the founder of Filene’s department store was also delighted.

In 1919, the Congress wound up rescinding DST and then went back and forth until the Uniform Time Act of 1966 and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 made it the law for (most of) the land. The problem though is that DST’s rationale relates to energy conservation and current research indicates that DST could even increase energy consumption.


The DST Debate

Last year we looked at one huge reason that daylight saving is good for us. Crime rates diminish when there is more light at night.

Two years ago, we considered how falling back and springing forward affected our health. Our conclusion was definitive for the fall back because more sleep is good for us. However, the health-related harm from spring forward is debatable.

There is more though that muddies our conclusions.

Some say evening rush hour is less dangerous because there is more light with DST. Others though indicate drivers’ DST sleep deprivation leads to more pedestrian deaths during the week after the change over. Furthermore, a recent study from economists at the University of Pittsburgh concludes that late sunset communities experience the sleep deprivation that diminishes health and productivity. Calling it social jet lag, with DST (late sunset), we go to bed later and that is not good for us. Still others point out that we burn more calories at night time activities and that is good for us. And finally, later light appears to spur more commercial activity.

Where does all of this take us? To one time.

Our Bottom Line: One Time

For many of us, the debate is about whether we change times twice a year. However, for me it just comes back to one time. Wherever possible, we should all use the same clock. Yes, November is delicious when we get an extra hour. And today is torture because lost it. However, the real question is what should we all do?

I suspect that the earlier Starbucks opening in California reflects coordination with New York financial markets. Similarly, Quartz told me that the people in Austin, Texas go to work at 8 a.m. rather than 9 a.m. because of NY time.

So, for the sake of the economic coordination that already occurs informally, let us create two time zones. My two zone proposal is a compromise. I actually would have suggested one time zone but hesitate because that would have taken us too far from our circadian clocks.

This division is a possibility:



And because of my night owl bias and the slight tilt of proof toward DST, it could become perpetual.

My sources and more: Quartz had the summary support for DST, the business side of the debate, and also the two time zone proposal. Tim Harford in a Slate article from long ago had the argument for one time zone. But, if you disagree with all I say, this University of Pittsburgh paper on social jet lag convincingly has your side.

Please note that the section on DST history was previously published in a past econlife post.




Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

econlife - What You Might Not Know About Cardboard Boxes by Elaine Schwartz


In a Prime(d) podcast one woman described the three Amazon deliveries she received on a Sunday. One vehicle delivered her cough syrup, another her panty hose, and a third, some crackers.

I assume that each arrived in a corrugated box.

Making Boxes

The life of a new cardboard box might have begun with an old box in a Wisconsin paper mill. Sprawling across 1.2 million square feet, the mill is a mixture of buildings, tunnels, and railroad tracks. At the plant, those old boxes wind up in a machine called an O.C.C. (old corrugated container).  There, large bales of used cardboard are thrown into vats of swirling warm water where the cardboard becomes dense brown gruel. Next the gruel has to be strained because you and I throw out plastic, staples, and assorted debris with our used boxes.

At this point, the pulpy mixture travels to a paper machine where it is propelled by belts and rollers moving at 25 miles an hour. If all goes well, huge quantities of soupy glop become a massive role of rigid brown paper. Eventually, the paper becomes a corrugated box, is sent to Amazon, and then to us.

Yes, we’ve skipped a lot. Just keep in mind that many old boxes are recycled into new ones in the U.S. through a process that involves making the paper, the corrugation, and then the box. And that takes us to China.

But first, you might want to see this video. An Amazon box supplier. Georgia-Pacific presents the whole process:




Recycling Boxes

We are doing more of our own box recycling because much less of our cardboard waste is going to China. Chinese companies have even bought U.S. paper mills because China no longer has the scrap it needs for its corrugated boxes:



Shipping Boxes

During 2018, Amazon spent more than $27 billion to ship our packages. Trying to cut costs, they delivered 26% of our online package orders themselves:



Our Bottom Line: Derived Demand

Amazon Prime’s five billion shipments during 2017 is one reason we’ve needed so many boxes. You know the incentive. When there is no charge for shipping, our individual orders multiply.

Here, an economist might cite derived demand. Defined as the need for a product because we want something else, corrugated boxes are the perfect example. During 2017, those 5 billion (or so) cardboard boxes we demanded from Amazon was not because we wanted so many boxes. It was because of the items that were shipped in them.

My sources and more: For many more facts about Wisconsin’s resuscitated paper industry, the NY Times told the story. Meanwhile WSJ, here and here. focused on Amazon while Amazon is all that the podcast Prime(d) investigates.


Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.