‘Freakonomics’ first-year seminar ignites critical thinking skills

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November 20, 2013

Nicole Hill and Da’juan Price expected college to be different from high school, but nothing prepared them for professor Kevin McIntyre’s first-year seminar, “Freakonomics.”

Based on the best-selling books by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the course challenges students to use economic reasoning to analyze and interpret everyday issues and to understand how incentives impact decisions.

If the description makes the course sound fairly ordinary, consider the topics targeted for economic analysis: cheating in sumo wrestling, organ transplants, consequences of names, impact of legalized abortion on crime and how a street prostitute is like a department-store Santa.

Ordinary and boring it is not, say Hill and Price.

“It challenges you to understand why people make the choices they make,” says Price, a Physics and Mathematics major from Clinton, Md. “Even if you think the decision is automatic, behind every decision there is a reason.”

His classmate Hill, who has decided to pursue a Business Administration major, says the class has given her a new perspective on learning in general.

“Our class discussions are so interesting. We aren’t memorizing – the principles are related to the real world,” says Hill, who was named Centennial Conference Offensive Player of the Week three times and All Centennial Conference team  honorable mention in her first season on McDaniel’s women’s soccer team. “We learned that there is always an incentive to influence people to change their behavior.

“For me, having a great soccer season was my incentive for giving up fried foods – which I intend to eat a lot of when I go home for Thanksgiving.”

The students aren’t alone in having fun in “Freakonomics.” Their professor, who typically teaches upper-level Economics courses, has relished interacting with the first-year students he calls good-natured and very much on the ball.

‘Freakonomics’ first-year seminar ignites critical thinking skills
Nicole Hill, Professor Kevin McIntyre, and Da'juan Price.

“I think they are realizing and appreciating that there is an economic aspect to everything, and most can be analyzed using rudimentary economic tools,” McIntyre says. “They are definitely exercising their critical thinking skills by approaching each topic from as many angles as possible and separating the nonsense from what’s actually going on.”

While lively discussions are the norm, students found the topics centered on sumo wrestling and prostitution particularly riveting – and hilarious.

“Prostitution is a business model,” says Price.

“After you read the chapter and then talk about it in class, it all makes sense,” says Hill, grinning as she pulls out her well-worn book and reads: “How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa? Both take advantage of short-term job opportunities brought about by holiday spikes and demand.”