The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the learning experience for students in Connecticut and around the world, and undergraduates at Western Connecticut State University have shown how the present health crisis can become an important new focus of university course work and research as well.
A recently completed independent study course in economics brought together three WCSU students with their instructor, Associate Professor of Economics Dr. Rotua Lumbantobing, to explore the many-faceted impacts of the pandemic and resulting shutdowns on the regional, national and global economies. Participants in the course, conducted online during the summer session, included undergraduates Robert Carey, of Hopewell Junction, New York; Colin Gillap, of Redding; and Eduarda Pages, of Waterbury.
Recognizing the opportunity to challenge her students to tackle an urgent public policy issue in their economic studies, Lumbantobing created the “Economics of Covid-19 Pandemic” course in the Social Sciences Department and asked participants to place the health crisis within the wider context of its impact on economic growth, unemployment, business closures, consumer activity and poverty.
“I asked my students to put all the economic aspects of this pandemic in context and decide what kind of policies should local, state and national governments adopt,” she said. “This crisis began with a non-economic event, but has still done much economic damage to many people, and it will take a lot from governments at every level to fix it.”
Lumbantobing observed that she has sought throughout her 16 years of college teaching to adapt her instructional methods and course topics to her students’ educational needs and the changing world around them. She noted that the relevance of economics to students’ everyday experiences helps them to understand the importance of analyzing a contemporary crisis such as the pandemic from an economic perspective.
“Students understand many of the ideas of economics and take economic actions every day, to take out a loan, find a job or improve their career opportunities,” she said. “So it is easy for them to get motivated when we ask them to look at a crisis that is going on right now and decide what collective actions we should take.”
Carey, Gillap and Pages collected a wide range of economic data from published and online resources, sharing their findings online and holding frequent virtual meetings with their instructor to discuss the relationship of trends in key economic indicators to the unfolding impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Their research provided the basis to put forward recommendations at the conclusion of the course offering guidance for public policy decisions to mitigate the economic damage from the pandemic going forward.
“The challenge for every policy maker is that this crisis is a moving target where we still cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Lumbantobing said. “I asked our students to think big, to think outside the box, to think of ideas that have never been tried before. This kind of analysis forces students to learn quickly and apply the knowledge they have acquired to the current situation. It keeps the students engaged and challenges them to achieve the goal.”
Specific policy recommendations presented by the students included a continuation of the unemployment benefit measures introduced in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal economic stimulus program enacted in late March to address the economic fallout from the pandemic. The students also recommended international collaboration to seek global consensus on common actions to maximize testing availability and to coordinate travel restrictions aimed at minimizing infection spread. The study also called for monitoring or shutdown of domestic and international sale of exotic animals for consumption.
Lumbantobing noted that the undergraduates in the Covid-19 economics course impressed her by offering new insights and perspectives that she had not previously considered. She remarked that she has found her students at WCSU, who often hold part-time jobs during their undergraduate studies, are especially attuned to the ways in which economics affects them in their daily lives.
“As a teacher, I can make that connection between theory and their everyday experience, so that they appreciate why economics matters to them,” she said. “I always have to consider how to reach out to my students and motivate them to learn, and to understand that the way each person learns is different.
“They motivate me as well because I am always curious to see what my students come up with and how they respond to the challenge,” she added. “I ask them to do big things and reach for the sky, and they haven’t disappointed me.”