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Harvard Economics Department Plans More Intro Classes Focused on Real-World Applications

Littauer
The Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department.

The Economics Department is working to create more entry-level courses focused on the applications — as opposed to theory — of economics in an effort to attract more freshmen and sophomores, according to Department Chair Jeremy C. Stein.

The department currently has one main introductory course that is a prerequisite to upper-level courses — Economics 10: “Principles of Economics.” Ec10 focuses very heavily on theory, which may discourage some students from taking the class or pursuing economics more broadly, Stein said. To combat this issue, the department has already created one application-heavy introductory course — Professor Raj Chetty’s Economics 1152: “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems” — and hopes to introduce more like it.

Both Stein and Economics Director of Undergraduate Studies Jeffrey A. Miron said some students have not found Ec10’s theory-first approach particularly interesting.

“To some students, ec10 (and 1010a, 1010b, 1123) are the ‘spinach’ while electives and applications are the ‘dessert.’ So it’s reasonable to allow the option of getting a taste of dessert first,” Miron wrote in an email.

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Freshmen interested in issues beyond economic theory, like income inequality or health care, have a harder time getting a flavor of such topics early on in their college career because they must start with Ec10 before taking other electives, according to Stein. The smaller range of course options early on may turn some people off from the field, he added.

“For juniors and seniors, we have a wide variety of offerings — lots of topics and many terrific faculty. But for freshmen and sophomores the pipe is narrower,” Stein said. “And so maybe they conclude, 'this is not for me, this is for people who want to be business majors.'”

Chetty’s course, targeted at freshmen and sophomores, aims to address this issue by showing the applications of “big data” and how it can be used to understand and solve current pressing socioeconomic issues.

“Raj wanted to be able to teach his course to freshmen and sophomores and so we did two things,” Stein said. “First off, there is no prerequisite for his course. And second — and this is new — even though there is no prerequisite, the course still counts towards the major. The goal in both cases being to increase accessibility.”

Alexandra Norris ’21, a student in Chetty’s course, said she finds “Big Data” particularly appealing because of its focus on policy. She added that it has “enhanced” her interest in economics.

“I enjoy how Chetty presents issues in class by first examining the issue, then looking for causation, and finally using the findings to devise programs or interventions that may improve people’s lives,” she said. “This course focuses on solutions to issues, allowing me to think about how what I learn can be applied to help people.”

Stein said the curriculum change that Chetty’s course is spearheading “may have broader implications” for future courses.

“We will be considering additional courses that imitate Chetty’s in not imposing an Ec10 requirement,” Miron said.

Though the department is not currently making structural changes to existing courses, freshman seminars taught by Economics professors can also count as electives towards the concentration, according to Miron.

—Staff writer Sophia S. Armenakas can be reached at sophia.armenakas@thecrimson.com

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