Friday, January 20, 2012

A dream class to teach

I've been working on the NBER chapter all this morning - thinking about a lot of things, including the issues raised in this post - and a really interesting course idea came to mind: Economics for Natural Science Majors. I think Economics for Non-Majors courses are fairly common (just as the "for non-majors" courses are common in many disciplines). In economics, usually these sorts of courses draw in public policy, government, and other social science people.

What would be interesting is to teach and economics course tailored to natural science majors. It would do two things:

1. Go over (in a more general way) material on the economics of science: occupational choice, labor market adjustment, compensating differentials, human capital investment, public goods nature of R&D, endogenous growth theory, etc.

2. Go over basic economic concepts as applied to science. You can teach things like the price mechanism and opportunity cost and how they relate to peak oil fears, discounting and thinking about climate change, etc.

At schools with some sort of social science general education requirement I think you could get a real critical mass for a class like this. Does anyone know if such a class exists? I think it would be a blast to teach.


  1. That class enjoys the opportunity of being extremely risky. Imagine that you teach these natural scientists an interpretation of economics that leads them to support ideas which are actually incorrect. The lack of a more extensive education in economics would handicap these natural scientists from really knowing how to judge what they're being taught.

  2. Dude, your carburetor is flooded. Your brain's float bowl is filled with education. Take the weekend off.

  3. I tutored an economics course for engineers during my Honours year. From what I can recall, it was mostly along the regular non-specialist lines that you describe; covering broad themes from the role of market pricing to basic fiscal and monetary policy. However, we did try to make it a relevant to their specific field. For instance, the examples might cover policy implications for infrastructure projects... While other examples had a kind of in-built relevance; say, the determinants of exchange rates (which are obviously crucial to all mining/commodity firms, construction projects, etc).

    That said, I don't suspect that it anything as focused as you have in mind here. Moreover, I think that such a class would be more fruitfully targeted at older students... As opposed to the freshman groups, which are normally assigned to it. Of course, many non-economist majors will gain some of these from taking an MBA... although, again that is separate target audience to what you have in mind. [Side note: I've often thought that it would be very useful to have a counter-equivalent of an MBA for econ/business graduates, where you could run over the main themes and ideas in, say, physics or engineering.]

    I'm currently involved in a cross-disciplinary group that aims to bring economists together with engineers and physicists, specifically focused on energy and climate. Things are still largely in their infancy stage, but I feel there's plenty of much scope for very good collaboration -- both academically and in a business setting. It's been edifying for me to learn much more about the physical constraints and potential of different energy forms (from simple things like Betz' Law to Thorium-based nuclear power). At the same time, I think that they've also benefited a lot from seeing how a cap-and-trade system would function in a practical market setting, etc etc.


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