In a Room of Their Own

In a Room of Their Own

Students tackle local and international issues in new Economics Research Lab.
By Mary Pattock '66

“We were literally tripping over them in the hallway!”

That’s Caroline Krafft, assistant economics professor, describing how students used to line the hall outside faculty offices on first-floor Whitby, hunched over laptops amid tangles of computer cords, camped out for easy access to their mentors. It wasn’t garden-variety homework they needed help with, but research they were working on with their professors — sophisticated research with significant local and international implications.

“We thought there should be space for this — and not just to avoid the tripping hazard!” Krafft quips, “but to help get the work done.”

So form followed function, and the Economics Research Lab was born. Tucked into a smallish space on the second floor of Whitby Hall, it’s a technology-rich spot made cozy with plants, desks, bookshelves and a table for collaborative work. It hums with low-volume conversation among students, most of them seated at their computer stations on exercise-ball chairs that are conducive to on-the-job fitness. One chalkboard features a quote of the day; another sets out a research schedule.

Computers are loaded with special software such as STATA and ODK, that students use to code raw data and manage and analyze big data sets, some of which were collected in the field using survey tools they themselves designed. One such project is the 2018 Egypt Labor Market Panel Survey, funded by the Economic Research Forum, an international group focused on sustainable development. Krafft, along with eight student collaborators, uses the lab to design surveys — administered via mobile devices to some 12,000 Egyptian households — and compile, organize and, in some cases, summarize the findings.

This, the fourth iteration of the survey, focuses on economic vulnerability and will address, among other things, unemployment and underemployment, the economic impact of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the economic vulnerability of rural Egyptian women. The latter is of critical importance because a woman’s ability to earn a livelihood impacts public health, access to water, crops and food security, childhood education and other basic social structures.

“It’s gratifying for us to see our work going somewhere,” says Kapono Asuncion ’19, who is majoring in women and international law. “And [being in the econ lab] helps with collaboration. We are able to look at each other’s computers and collaborate.”

Staffing the endeavor is Caitlyn Keo ’16, a former student of Krafft’s and two-year veteran of the department’s collaborative research program. After graduation, she worked as a data analyst at the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota. Now she’s back at her alma mater to support and mentor current students.

Keo leads the project teams, sets out daily tasks, troubleshoots software problems and offers an experienced hand with editing. Students and faculty find her welcoming presence, experience and computer savvy critical to the lab’s success.

Some people call economics “the dismal science,” but not these students.

“At St. Kate’s, we tend to care more about how these economic principles can help people all over the world,” says economics and mathematics major Elizabeth Kula ’19. “People always think about it as either stocks or money, but to me that’s not what it is. If money didn’t exist, economics principles would still apply to things that aren’t just money.

“To me, it’s all about studying the choices people make and why they make those choices, and, hopefully, how we can make those choices in the most rational way so they will be beneficial to everybody,” Kula says, reflecting the University’s deep commitment to social justice.

Kula has collaborated with Kristine West, assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Political Science, on research that explores, in part, whether Minneapolis Public Schools teachers are more effective if they’ve completed their student teaching in that same district. It’s a joint project of St. Kate’s, the school district and the University of Minnesota, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Kula’s Herculean task — to use the lab’s sophisticated software to clean, merge and analyze huge data dumps from the district — was beyond instructive; it was enlightening. “I didn’t realize how messy data is in the real world, and how hard it is to get good data.” West involves the students in other aspects of the project, as well. “They get to go to the meetings with the U of M and the school district, so they see the policy discussion, the practice, how the human resources office works in Minneapolis and what kinds of questions they have that we can answer with data.”

She says she treats her undergraduate students as if they were graduate students. “This puts them in a really advantageous spot in terms of applying to grad schools. The schools say, ‘Wow, you’re already doing the level of research that we expect from our grad students.’”

Krafft’s students have also contributed substantially to a World Bank report on education, for which she is the lead technical expert. In addition to editing the overall report, they researched and wrote super-succinct case studies.

One such study compared the approaches of two educational systems, both of them excellent but for different reasons: South Korea’s, which is rigorous and relies on frequent testing, and Finland’s, which is more relaxed. Other case studies looked at early childhood development, labor market policies and education access for people with disabilities.

Writing the case studies was challenging, says Asuncion; it was no easy task to write concisely while retaining nuance. But the payoff was gratifying: the student work was valued and used in the report.

Krafft points out that research experience yields benefits beyond the acquisition of specific skills and knowledge. It builds confidence and helps students connect the dots between real-world issues and abstract classroom learning. She says St. Kate’s faculty-student collaboration is unique, in that the opportunity is part of a formal program — known as Summer Scholars — as opposed to one-off or occasional partnerships. In addition, St. Kate’s Department of Economics and Political Science focuses on economics as a tool for promoting social justice.

The students who participate in these projects hail from diverse majors. In the lab on any given day, a visitor would find an econ student consulting with a peer from political science, or from international development or business. Thus, their findings are sifted through a variety of academic lenses.

Lyndsay Kast ’18 is a fashion merchandising and economics major with hopes of being a buyer for a large clothing retailer. Her work on the Egyptian survey project showed her how fashion and economics go together. She’s now writing a paper on outsourcing in the apparel industry, which benefits developing countries but also has negative impacts. She is exploring how companies can make a profit while providing garment workers with better workplaces and higher salaries.

Caite McConnell ’18 came to the Egypt project and a similar one focused on Jordan as an international relations and economics major minoring in Arabic. She says the opportunity to translate survey results from English to Arabic and vice-versa was “a perfect intersection of where my interests lay.”

McConnell wants to use economics as a tool to address problems such as immigration, terrorism and counterterrorism, and post-disaster rehabilitation of countries. She hopes to launch her career in London, a hub for discussions of complex economics issues such as these.

“In international relations, we study all these theories and ideas and how people will relate to each other, but there are no really concrete answers,” says McConnell. “But then I came to macroeconomics and microeconomics, and saw ways to solve questions by using data or analyzing previous behavior, or by looking at how trade will affect a situation. Economics definitely gives me a lot more tools to look at situations, and that’s what I really love about it.”

And there’s nothing dismal about that.

Caroline Kraft (standing) and Caitlyn Keo '16 (far right) provide students with a venue to collaborate on research. Photo by Rebecca Slater '10, by Rebecca Studios.

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