WHAT DOES SIDEWALK CHALK have to do with economics? Just ask Associate Economics Professor Sean Mulholland, who uses the medium to help his students tease out concepts and questions. Mulholland doesn’t stop there; he also uses The Farm at Stonehill to help his environmental economics students understand what is involved in producing food by getting “their hands dirty.” Here the well-published and popular professor shares his thoughts on Karl Marx, why incentives matter, NASCAR and the beauty of it all.
MY INTEREST IN ECONOMICS BEGAN WHEN: I wrote a paper in high school on how we should be required to share what we produce. I then learned that some guy named Marx had scooped me about 125 years earlier. As I read more, I realized that Marx’s system didn’t provide information necessary for planners to determine what and how much to produce, but that this calculation problem was developed in the works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
FAVORITE TEACHING MOMENT: There are so many. When a student stops by my office with an application of an idea we discussed in class. When a former student emails me about how he used his economics knowledge to solve a complicated issue at work. When a student presents her research at a national conference or is offered a competitive graduate fellowship.
SOMETHING I WANT ALL STUDENTS TO KNOW ABOUT ECONOMICS: Incentives matter. Economics is about coordination and exchange. In a world with limited resources, there will always be competition over how those resources are created and allocated. Yet competition can take many forms, some destructive, some beneficial. The question is how can we organize society in a way that harnesses this competition to generate beneficial outcomes?
HOW I USE SIDEWALK ART TO TEACH ECONOMICS: Every semester at least one student asks: “Can we go outside today?” And sidewalk economics allows me to say, “Yes!” Using chalk as their medium and the sidewalk as their canvas, student groups answer a question. I can then ask groups to switch places and create a question that would match the answer provided by the first group’s illustration. For a greater level of creativity, students also illustrate a concept of their interest from material covered in class.
I USE THE FARM AT STONEHILL TO: Get my environmental economics students to experience the planning and work required to grow food. We discuss the economics of food in class, but having students get their hands dirty and their bodies sore from farm activity requires them to think deeply about the process of not only food, but also life. I want them to think about economic development and ways they can help those seeking a path to greater prosperity.
IN MY FREE TIME: I read economics and law blogs like Marginal Revolution, Calculated Risk, Café Hayek, Free Exchange, Economist’s View, Vox EU and The Volokh Conspiracy. I also play with my kids, watch automobile racing (F1, Indy, and yes, NASCAR), and work on my 1973 Volvo 1800ES…but it has not been driven in two years.
MY FAVORITE SAYING: “The beauty of it is…” Beauty is everywhere.
The Company We Keep
THOUGH THE nature vs. nurture debate has been around for ages, it turns out it’s not one or the other, according to Assistant Professor of Biology Bronwyn Bleakley, who is researching the equally critical role social environments play in determining behavior.
In her Stonehill lab, Bleakley and a team of students are using inbred fish lines to explore how changes in an individual’s social environment impact his behavior. “We have a line that is cooperative and another line that is uncooperative,” she explains. “When we add in a fish from a third strain to either of those environments, she will behave in the same way as her social partners do.”
In the extreme, these social behaviors are a life and death matter, as Bleakley has demonstrated through studying aquatic isopods, which tend to feast on family and friends. “Just like it’s hard to be cooperative if you’re paired with an uncooperative partner, it’s hard to be cannibalistic by yourself,” she explains. “So cannibalism emerges in the space between individuals, just like cooperation does.”
Though Bleakley’s lab, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Animal Behavior Society, is devoted to basic research, she sees a future where her studies may inform a range of human psychological and developmental disorders, such as autism.
“Many people on the autism spectrum do not effectively read social cues,” she says. “Understanding how social interactions yield collective behaviors could inform how we understand human behavior in the future.”
Bleakley has also demonstrated that being exposed to environmental contamination can change an individual’s behavior, which in turn changes the behavior of that individual’s social partner, even if the social partner was not exposed to the contamination. That means an individual’s evolutionary success, whether it’s measured by surviving a predatory threat or caring properly for its babies, depends at least in part on the specific social partners it interacts with.
“Taken all together,” says Bleakley, “our lab can definitively say that it matters who you hang out with.”
—Maura King Scully
Big Project for Small Business
SMALL BUSINESSES are the economic heart of any community, and nobody teaches that quite like Associate Professor of Business Administration Eddie Rhee.
Rhee’s hands-on, community-based curriculum and teaching approach not only give his students real-world experience with local businesses, but they also provide local business owners free data analysis and retail recommendations.
“It’s better for students to go to a business, look at the displays, see the back room and its employees—and then apply what they learn in class to this real place, rather than reading about it on paper in class,” Rhee notes. “That’s not my philosophy.”
For instance, for the final project in his Retail Management course last fall, Rhee had students create actual management strategies for Tuxedos by Merian, a Brockton men’s formal wear shop owned by John Merian ’81.
Students surveyed customers and researched various retail factors, including the area’s economic conditions, traffic flow and parking availability near the shop, operating costs, competition and merchandise.
Students even touched upon the store’s atmosphere—lighting, color, music and scent—along with its customer service strategies and employee enthusiasm.
After compiling survey answers and analyzing results, Rhee’s students made recommendations for the tux shop based on concrete data analysis and presented their findings in class to Merian and Rhee.
“It’s a mutual benefit,” says Rhee. “For the business, it’s free consulting. Hiring a consultant is very expensive, and often small business owners are so busy with day-to-day operation that they have no time to collect their own data. So here’s this local college, Stonehill, whose students will collect data and analyze it for them in a way they can use.”
—Lauren Daley ’05