Friday Faculty Focus: Dustin White


June 16th, 2017

Dr. Dustin White poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

On this week’s Friday Faculty Focus, KVNO reporter Brandon McDermott speaks with Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Dr. Dustin White. They discuss White’s different approach to teaching economics to students.

Brandon: Dr. Dustin White, thanks for joining me today.

Dr. Dustin White: It’s great to be here.

Brandon: One course you teach as an economist is Principles of Microeconomics. How do you take a course or the subject like economics — one which is seen by some to be dense or unexciting — and keep students interested?

Dr. White: It’s a tricky question that we spend a lot of time talking about in the Econ department. My particular approach to it is a little bit different than my colleagues. I come from a background where I’ve been able to teach sports economics in the background and so what I’ve done is I’ve kind of taken some of the things I’ve been able to implement in the sports econ class and brought them back to the principals level, because some of it is really approachable and it actually makes a great case for why economics matters. It helps students see through the lens of something that, generally speaking, students care about — not every student cares about sports — but a lot of them do.

It helps them take the lens of sports and focus it on economics and see why the things they’re learning in class actually say something about the world around them. So, my favorite project is focused on the movie “Moneyball” which I know you’ve seen. But it’s a great movie about a sports manager named Billy Beane — he works for the Oakland A’s — and it’s about his approach to using data to make better decisions than his competitors. So we take the same approach. I show them how we use data to estimate the value of labor and we talk about how it works in different industries, we talk about how input costs relate to the actual cost of the good and then we talk about how in baseball Billy Beane realized that if his fans cared about winning, he could go find better players to make his team win that other teams weren’t willing to spend money on because they didn’t see them as viable players. So by combining those players he was able to create — using data — a better team than almost all of his competitors at a much, much lower payroll level.

Brandon: I know you alluded to this already with students being interested in — generally speaking — in sports. But how much do their ears perk up and pay more attention in class when you say, “OK we’re going to use sports to talk about the basics here of economics?”

Dr. White: They do perk up. It’s not just with sports either. Some of the other fun things to use (is) popular culture. I love using — I don’t know if you watch the show “Last Week Tonight?”  I really enjoy using those segments because they tend to take economic principles and apply them to current events. So when we when we use these contemporary events to kind of drive the examples in class — just like with sports — what we’re doing is we’re trying to take it in relate it to something they actually do, because with math and with statistics and with economics, the traditional approach has been “here’s a theory and we’ll leave it to you to figure out how it applies to your life,’ and that’s a terrible way to teach anybody anything. If we taught people the theory of baseball and never let them swing a bat, nobody would ever play sports, right?

The same thing happens in basically every field. So what we’re trying to do is get back to (talking) about the theory because it matters, right? We want to give them context for the theory too. We want to tell them, “this thing that we just learned that turns out that companies don’t always account for all of the costs they incur,” which is because those costs are borne by someone else. If I pollute, my factory is not the one that becomes worse because of the pollution. It’s everybody else’s air quality (which) goes down, they become (sicker), labor becomes less productive and that’s a cost for society. When we talk about pollution we need to give that context that an externality isn’t just something in economic models, it’s a real thing. If somebody smokes next to you and you have asthma — you feel those costs pretty quickly.

Brandon: I noticed you like using “big data” to incorporate statistical learning methods into your work. Can you elaborate on this a little bit?

Dr. White: It’s really important, because it turns out that we have tons of data around us nowadays. Every time we browse the Internet there’s information generated about us, either by the website that we are requesting be loaded onto our screen, or when we walk around and our phones is in our pocket it logs where we go because it’s trying to keep track of that, so it knows how to give us directions when we ask for them. All of this data is being generated and like we’ve already talked about baseball, data makes us better decisions. When we use data carefully we can make better decisions about whatever it is that we’re trying to decide on. So, big data is basically just the reflection of the fact that we have more availability of data nowadays than we did before. What we’re trying to do is figure out, is how do we how do we use that data to make decisions now?

Brandon: Dr. Dustin White thanks for coming on.

Dr. White: Thank you.

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