Stars and Triangles

This morning brings a third post by guest contributor Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her previous posts are here and here.

“Stars & Triangles” is an in-class application of comparative advantage, a concept frequently included in the political economy section of politics textbooks. Unfortunately, political science students encounter economic principles like comparative advantage without having any background in economics. I’m reluctant to spend too much class time reviewing conceptual definitions when there’s other material to cover in political economy. However, if students don’t understand the foundational economic concepts, especially those related to international trade, then they’re less likely to understand the more relevant material.

RicardoStars & Triangles groups students into “states” producing two different “products”: paper stars and triangles. In the first round, all groups produce both but half of the groups are more “industrialized” — they have templates for tracing shapes, making their production process more efficient. The other half must create stars and triangles to required specifications (regulatory standards) using rulers and pencils without templates. After a pre-determined period of time, the output of each group is noted on the board, and industrialized” states are compared to the “less industrialized” states. In the second round, groups specialize: industrialized states produce stars and less industrialized states produce triangles for the same amount of time as the first session. Afterwards, production totals are again tallied and compared. Instructors can run a third round, where states trade stars for triangles.

Before using Stars & Triangles, my students frequently challenged the idea that economic specialization can create more efficient production and better market conditions. Using a TPR-based activity like Stars & Triangles helps students move from the abstract to practical application, making the concept more understandable. It also reduces their anxiety about economic concepts that they often find difficult to grasp or think are irrelevant to their political science interests. Stars & Triangles also clearly links the economic concepts presented in the textbook to class discussions about international trade and political economy.

When developing Stars & Triangles, I began with Biz/ed, a site that provides teaching and learning resources for business education. In addition to an activity for comparative advantage, the site has free worksheets and instructions. To integrate the simulation into the course, however, I needed to adapt some of the materials and adjust the run-time for the activity to fit it within a single class meeting.

As preparation, students read a textbook chapter on basic concepts in international trade and political economy that includes a section on comparative advantage. In the classroom, I review comparative advantage, distribute worksheets and other materials, create groups, and explain the rules. Once the Stars & Triangles simulation begins, students engage in TPR: they are required to take on a particular role (as a producer or regulator), and follow through with action. Producers draw and cut the shapes, while regulators make sure each shape meets “international standards” to count towards their teams’ production totals. The physical activity of drawing, cutting, and measuring is linked to economic production. For debriefing, the class works through the final questions on the worksheet together.

Running a one-session simulation as part of an introduction to political economy has improved my students’ comprehension of comparative advantage and other key economic terms used in political science. Students who participate in the simulation performed better on political economy questions on final exams. When asked to explain specific economic concepts on the final exam in a short answer section, approximately a third of the students who participated in the comparative advantage simulation reference the activity in their responses. Finally, fewer students express frustration with trying to understand certain concepts during office hours.

Overall, I have found that Stars & Triangles leads to increased comprehension as observed through improved test scores and less anxiety about economic terminology used in the political science classroom.

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