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Bring Data into Your Classroom: A Tutorial for using FRED Interactives and FREDcast - Econ Lowdown Webinar Series, Episode 8

In this session of the Econ Lowdown webinar series, presenters from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis discuss strategies for using data in the classroom as an effective way to make content relevant in a variety of subjects. Specifically, they focus on two user-friendly classroom resources:

  • FRED Interactives are online modules that teach data literacy and economic content at the same time. Students learn how to build and customize FRED graphs and then interpret the data – all within the EconLowdown online learning platform.
  • FREDcast is an interactive forecasting game in which players make forecasts for four economic releases: GDP, inflation, employment, and unemployment. Teachers and professors can organize their classrooms into leagues. Players can judge their performance by looking at their rankings within leagues or for all FREDcast users.

The webinar introduces many ways to use FRED Interactives and FREDcast in the classroom, from creating a personal account to linking your Econ Lowdown classrooms to leagues.

Transcript

Below is a full transcript of this webinar. It has not been edited or reviewed for accuracy or readability.

Denise Qaoud: Good afternoon and welcome to today’s Econ Lowdown webinar. Our discussion for today focuses on bringing data into your classroom; a tutorial for using FRED Interactives and FREDcast. I’m Denise Qaoud with the St. Louis Fed and I’ll be your facilitator. We have an outstanding lineup of presenters today; Hannah Shell, Senior Research Associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Diego Mendez-Carbajo, Economics Professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.

And now please join me on slide two and I’ll cover the call logistics. If you haven’t already done so yet click on the webinar link you received after registering. This option offers a few benefits. You can watch the slides as they’re advanced, you can type question to us, download the session materials, and choose to listen to the audio through your PC speakers.

Please note that the webinar performance is dependent upon your connection. So if at any time you’re having problems just pick up the phone and dial the toll free number. If you dial in via the phone please note that there may be up to a 30 second delay in the slide transitions. So you can click on the “Materials” button to download a copy of the presentation and follow along that way if you prefer.

Through the “Materials” button, you can also access a webinar FAQ document to assist you with questions you may have about the webinar platform. To ask questions for our presenters today you can submit them at any time by clicking on the “Ask Question” button in the webinar tool. Be sure to keep your mouse handy throughout the webinar as we’ll be asking you to participate in some polling questions later on.

One additional note: The views expressed in this presentation are those of the presenters and are not the official opinions of nor binding on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, nor the Federal Reserve System. Now, with all of that out of the way let me welcome our first presenter, Diego. Take it away.

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Hi. My name is Diego Mendez-Carbajo. I am a professor of economics at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. I have been teaching for almost 20 years using real data in my lectures and assigning short data visualization and analysis projects to my students.

The agenda for this webinar covers two different topics related to teaching with data. First we will talk about what active learning with data is and about what FRED Interactives are. Next we will talk about what FREDcast is and how it works -- from entering forecasts to interpreting the scores. So, what is active learning with data? Let’s take a poll. How many people in the audience teach with data?

Denise Qaoud: All right. So, at this time we’re going to ask you guys to answer a polling question. You should see that popping up on your screen. Go ahead and fill that out while I read the question out loud. Do you use data in your teaching? A, Not really, B, Yes, I use FRED data, C, Yes, I use data, but not from FRED. So go ahead and submit your answer now and I’ll pause just a moment to let people finish selecting their choice.

Okay. We’re going to go ahead and stop the poll and show the results. It should pop up in just a couple of seconds. Okay. Looks like our results are: A, 43% say not really. B, 43% say yes, I’ve used FRED data. And C, 14% say, yes, I use data but not from FRED. So, Diego, we will turn it back to you.

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Thank you, Denise. That’s very helpful. And it helped me figure out who the audience is on the other side of this webinar. I’m a big fan of FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database, because it is super easy to use and it gives you free access to hundreds of thousands of data series through one user-friendly website. Moreover, the FRED website allows you to immediately visualize each and every series in its database. There is no need to download files and fiddle with a spreadsheet.  There are other databases that allow you to create online graphs. But none of those databases matches the visualization tools offered by FRED.

I have published several articles on how to use FRED as a pedagogical resource. And I regularly participate in conferences focused on teaching and learning where I give presentations on the topic of teaching with data. Last year I spent a semester at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis as a visiting scholar in the research division where FRED lives. There I worked with a very talented group of web designers, web developers, and instructional designers building a new set of instructional resources to make teaching with FRED even easier.

If you join me on slide number eight I will show you what I mean by teaching with data. Here’s an example of teaching with data. Let’s take the concept of nominal and real wages. This is part of the standard curriculum in introductory economics and the national standards in economic education. In traditional pedagogy, the way this topic is most frequently covered in textbooks is by first describing three concepts:

  • Nominal wages: (wages expressed in current dollars—as in a paycheck stub)
  • The cost of living: (measured through some sort of price index—let’s say, the Consumer Price Index)
  • Real wages: (wages expressed in constant dollars, or cost-of-living adjusted dollars).

In slide number 11 you can see the familiar formula we present our students with when discussing real wages. Real wages are equal to nominal wages divided by the price index times 100. With some basic algebra we can show that when nominal wages are constant an increase in the price index would make the value of real wages decrease. Neat. Isn’t it? Algebra can take our students places.

And here’s the twist. What if we could put the concept of nominal and real wages to work on a realistic and relevant context? What if we could use actual economic data to illustrate that idea? These are the driving principles behind the idea of teaching with data. This is what makes teaching with data an engaging and effective active learning strategy.

If you join me in slide 13 I will show you an actual example of teaching with data. After all, one image is worth, as they say, 1,000 words. We’ll start at the FRED website. First we search for “federal minimum hourly wage for non-farm workers for the United States.” Our search results show us one series with that name. And after we select the series we click on “add to graph”.

As you can see in slide number 15, FRED plots the series in a graph. This series is our nominal wages. Notice the stepwise nature of the graph. The federal minimum wage is set by Congress at its discretion. Between 1974 and 1981 Congress revised the federal minimum wage seven times, and between 1981 and 1996, only once. Okay.

Next we will edit this graph by clicking on the orange button above the graph.  By editing the FRED graph I can add a second line. In this case I am adding the “federal minimum hourly wage for non-farm workers for the United States.” Next I customize the line by adding a second series. What I am doing here is adding a second series, the “consumer price index” to line two. The last step will be to apply a formula to the two series now part of Line 2: A divided by B times 100. The formula combines series A, the nominal minimum wage, and series B, the consumer price index, within the same graph line. Sorry I cannot show you how to do this live on the FRED website today.

But please notice what we are doing in slide 19. We are applying the formula to compute real wages to the nominal federal minimal wage. So now the graph in slide 20 shows the nominal federal minimal wage, the blue line, and the real federal minimum wage, the red line, adjusted by the consumer price index with 1984 as the base year. After viewing this graph we can easily visualize the concept of decreasing real wages when nominal wages are constant and the general price level rises. Super neat. Isn’t it?

By now you might be wondering, how can I add that assignments to my courses? The answer is by using FRED Interactive lessons from econlowdown.org. If you don’t have an instructor account already go to econlowdown and register. An instructor account gives you access to more than 200 free online teaching resources. FRED Interactive lessons live in econlowdown.org.

Currently there are three lessons: Nominal and Real Wages, Comparative Advantage, and Information Literacy. How do the FRED interactives look on the inside? Let me show you how to navigate a FRED Interactive.

As you can see in slide 26 in a FRED Interactive lesson the top section of the screen allows you to interact with the real FRED website. The bottom section of the screen is the work area where you can read instructions, answer questions and receive feedback. Each section of the lesson is numbered and contains specific tasks to complete: answer a pre-test; build a FRED graph; read a FRED graph; and answer a post-test. Each section has a specific task to complete. Step-by-step instructions are provided for each task. For example, how to build a graph of nominal and real federal minimum wages. If you miss a step, help windows pop up and guide you to correctly complete each task. When you complete a task you must select a confidence level before checking if your work is correct.  This is a marker of metacognition that will help us learn how difficult each task is.

Take the FRED Interactive Lessons for a spin today. Log into econlowdown.org and bring data into your classroom. And now I think we have a polling question.

Denise Cain: Yeah, that’s right. Thanks, Diego. So, once again, go ahead and get your mouse ready so you can select the answer. You should see that pop up on your screen in just a moment. I will go ahead and read it out loud and you can make your selection now. Have you heard of FREDcast? A, Yes, I have heard of FREDcast but I’m not playing. B, Yes, I have heard of FREDcast and I’m playing. C, No, I have not heard of FREDcast.

So go ahead and make your selection. And while you’re choosing whatever option you would like I just want to take a moment and remind our audience members that you can submit questions at any time by clicking on the “Ask Question” button in the webinar tool.

So at this time I’m going to go ahead and stop this poll and show the results. Should pop up on our screen here in just a few moments. Okay.  It looks like 29 percent say A, Yes, I have heard of FREDcast but I’m not playing. And 71 percent say C, No, I have not heard of FREDcast. And at this time I believe we’re going to turn it over to Hannah Shell.

Hannah Shell: Thanks, Denise. As Denise mentioned my name is Hannah. I’m a Research Associate here at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And my responsibility, in addition to assisting economists with their economic research, is to talk about FREDcast.

FREDcast, which we’ve just discovered that many of you have not heard of yet, is basically fantasy forecasting for economic data. It’s a great way to get students excited about economic data presented in a format similar to fantasy sports.

Now, before I dive into the details about FREDcast I want to talk about some feedback that I’ve gotten from educators like yourselves. These quotes come from high school level educators teaching introductory economics. And what we’re hearing from them is that students are connecting to the data and starting to think more analytically about things. Like, why GDP increases in a given quarter. Or, what happens when payroll employment surprises negatively one month? Teachers are finding simple ways to encourage competition in their classes like leaderboards posted on the whiteboard. And the involvement is not limited to the classroom. Students are talking to their parents about current changes in the indicators also.

What I think we’re seeing is a closing of one of the most challenging divides of introductory economics: real world application of theoretical principles. I know as an economics student myself I always wanted to know how the graph I was drawing connected me to the real economy. It all seemed so overly simplified. With FREDcast students can learn to apply Philips curve type concepts to real world data and connect to actual tasks performed by real economists.

This brings me to my next point on slide 35. Why did we make FREDcast? Well, the St. Louis Feds created FREDcast as a connection between the classroom and our popular data service, FRED, which you’ve heard a lot about from Diego already. FREDcast connects FRED into the classroom on a new and exciting way.  We’ve already heard some feedback from educators that students are really excited about forecasting economic variables. Essentially FREDcast is set up in a league structure. So, students can create accounts, you as an educator can create league, students can join that league, enter their forecast and view their scores in the context of the league. It’s an exciting competitive outlet and it allows students to match wits with classmates and other economic enthusiasts in a public league which all users are automatically entered into.

Moving onto slide 36, feel free to check out the FREDcast site at any time by following the link on the bottom of the slide, and you can follow along on the website as I go through this information. FREDcast essentially involves forecasting four economic indicators every month. Those four series are the unemployment rate, payroll employment, Gross Domestic Product or GDP, and the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. I’ll go into detail about the units and frequency later.

The only real deadline you have to remember for FREDcast is listed on Slide 36. You must submit your forecast before the 20th of the month at midnight.  You forecast each series in FREDcast every month and you only enter one set of forecasts no matter how many leagues you’re in. You can also revise these forecasts as many times as you’d like up to the deadline. And once that deadline passes your forecasts are fixed and they’ll be scored as the data are released.

FREDcast scoring system is set up so that the closer your forecast is to the actual number the higher your score will be. As you’ll see later on you can see how well you are doing in FREDcast by looking at the score on the monthly leaderboards.

So, how do you enter these forecasts? For any FRED users that want to give it a try, all that has to be done is go to FRED and sign in using your FRED account. If you don’t have a FRED account, that’s no problem. It’s really easy to register with just your e-mail address and a password. What I’m showing you here is the FRED account homepage, and you can see that on the left side of the home page there’s sort of a summary of FRED activity. And if you go to the “My Account” dropdown there is an option to go to FREDcast. And here on this side we’re seeing the FREDcast landing page. If you follow that link at the bottom this is the page that you would be taken to in your browser. Now, if you’re already signed in with your FRED account you will not see the lower left option to log in. You’ll just see a button to enter a FREDcast and start playing. But if you do have a FRED account and you’re not signed in, you can sign in and click the blue button to enter your first forecast.

On slide 40 is the first forecast entry slide. Each month that you enter a forecast in FREDcast, you’ll enter one for each indicator and you’ll see a series of slides in the same order. The first one will always be the unemployment rate. There’s a lot of information on this slide designed to help you know exactly what you are forecasting. First of all, the units and frequency are listed right below the indicator tile. For the unemployment rate the unit is the monthly rate after it’s been seasonally adjusted. I’ll also note that the unemployment rate number is the commonly referred to headline number by news agencies. Below the units on the slide there is a brief description of the indicator, a hint, and a link to some Econ Lowdown materials. For the unemployment rate it’s a podcast about the labor market.

Once you’re comfortable with the variable you’re forecasting direct your attention to the right side of the slide. Here you’ll see a sentence with a date and a blank box to enter your forecast.  On this slide we’re looking at the sentence for June. But as you move forward in time that sentence will update to November as we’re seeing on the next slide. Or in our case, currently we’re entering forecasts for December.

The release date is listed below the sentence on the slide so you can see that for November 2016 the data will come out on December 2nd, and that’s the Employment Situation report. Now, FREDcast is designed to ensure that what you enter in the forecast box is what you intended to enter. So if you enter something that FREDcast detects as a typo it’ll give you an error. For example, thinking about the unemployment rate, if you enter a negative unemployment rate that really isn’t possible. So, FREDcast will ask you to type positive numbers to move forward. And these ranges are really broad. They’re designed to make sure that you’re entering what you intended to enter and not to be suggestive about a particular point forecast.

So, after we enter the unemployment rate we’ll move onto payroll employment which we’re seeing on this current slide. Notice that the slide is set up in exactly the same way but with different definitions, hints, and units. The units for the payroll employment are the monthly change in persons rounded to the nearest thousandth. So again, this is the headline number typically reported by news agencies. And one thing I will highlight is that payroll employment is rounded to the nearest thousand persons. So if you wanted to enter a forecast of 181,500 persons you would type 182,000 and just round to the nearest thousand. Or, alternatively, if you type 181,500 into the box, FREDcast will actually round that number for you.

Moving onto the next slide we’ll see the forecast entry for real GDP Growth. Now, GDP is a little bit different in the previous two indicators because it is forecasted monthly but released on a quarterly frequency. In FREDcast this means you forecast the same initial release of GDP’s three times. For example, in quarter three you would forecast the initial release of GDP in July, August, and September. So, the three months of quarter three. All of those forecasts will be scored upon the initial release of GDP in the end of October. You can change your forecast each time throughout the month or keep it the same but you do have to submit a different forecast every month. When the data is released the scores will be posted. For GDP you’re always forecasting the quarterly percent change from the preceding period seasonally adjusted at an annual rate. Again, this is the headline number commonly reported by news agencies. And the units do sound a little bit complicated but most of us have only ever heard of GDP growth in terms of annual rate, so it’s actually easier to think about GDP this way.

Moving onto our last indicator on slide 43 we have the Consumer Price Index. CPI in FREDcast is forecasted in the year over year percent change. Again, the headline number commonly reported in the news. Once you enter CPI you can select the button on the right side of the slide and you’ll be taken to the review forecast page. Here you have one final opportunity to read through all of your forecasts and make sure that what you entered is what you intended to enter. Once you’ve read through each of the forecasts in a sentence you can click the save forecast button at the bottom of the slide and you’ll get a little green conformation box saying that your forecasts are saved. And that’s it. You’re done for the month.

So, how do you get your students involved? Well, that’s where private leagues come in. On slide 45 I show the league creation form and a shot of the league manager’s page. As a FREDcast user you can just click the ‘League Info” button and select ‘Create a League” from the drop down results to see the screen on the left. All you have to do to create a league is enter a name and a start date. The end date is optional and your league will be created. You can share this league with students by either pasting a comma separated e-mail list into the box seen on the right side of the slide or you can just give them the league invite code.

What I’ve heard has been really successful in classes is just taking that league invite code and writing it up on the board or sending it out in an e-mail, and then having students enter it on their own once they create a FREDcast account. Joining a league is also really simple just use that same “League Info” drop down and then you select “Join a League” and just paste the code into the box.

Now that you’ve entered forecasts and invited your students to a league you’re ready to start looking at scores. FREDcast forecasts are scored as the economic data is released. On slide 46 I’m showing the score viewing page for the public league. The scoring page is going to be set up exactly the same for public and private leagues. And most of the information will be the same. The main thing that will be different between public and private leagues is the all-time score. The all-time score for a private league starts when the league starts. And because this score is a summation of how you’re doing since you’ve started playing, in the private league it could be lower than in the public league because the private league will only go back to the league start date, as opposed to the date when you started playing FREDcast. I’ll show you an example of this later. The number of leagues has no effect on your score though.

Essentially monthly points are measuring how you did in any month. Here you can see that there’s a monthly points leaderboard and an all-time score leaderboard. Other information on the scoring page is a summation of how many points you’ve earned in one particular month. You’ll also have a summary of forecast errors and some graphics at the bottom of the page that show your forecast error compared to the league forecast error.

Now let’s talk in some more detail about the difference between all-time and monthly scores. All-time scores, as I’ve mentioned before are accumulated over time and award consistent forecasting.

Here on slide 48 I’m showing the difference between all-time scores and monthly points. This is a time series graph of how I’ve done personally for about a year. As I mentioned before the all-time score is a weighted sum. So we see that it increases pretty consistently over the course of the year. The one time that it doesn’t increase is in April when I had a really bad month of forecasting, so my all-time score actually went down a little bit. But then you can see in May and June as my forecasting performance rebounded my all-time score also continues to increase. And it levels out somewhere above 2,000. So, if you’re coming into the public league for the first time as a new user you can expect that with, you know, six to eight months of really good forecasting you can see yourself up on the top of the leaderboard. It’s also an advantage in private leagues where if you’re playing with other students the all-time scores for that league will reset. Everybody’s really playing on the same level no matter how long they’ve been in FREDcast in the private leagues.

Finally FREDcast is still a work in progress and we’re always trying to improve. We’ve added some new features recently designed to make FREDcast more user friendly. On the menu bar you now have the option to add a calendar reminder to enter forecasts. You can use Google, Yahoo, or Outlook reminders and essential you’ll get a little pop up on the 15th and on the 20th saying, on the 15th, hey, you’ve got 5 days to the FREDcast forecast deadline. And on the 20th which is a deadline you’ll get another little reminder to go make sure you’ve entered your forecast.

Another exciting feature which is particularly useful in an education setting is the ability to export league standing scores and participation. On the bottom of the screen here we’re just seeing a little shot of the league manager’s page which I showed you before. That would be how you invite students to your league. And when you have students in your league you’ll see this table here populated with the students’ information. And you can click that export and view forecasts dot “CSV” button to get a spreadsheet with the username, e-mail and current forecast, current scored forecasts, and an indicator on whether or not they’ve entered forecasts for the current period. So that can be really useful if you’re concerned about students not getting their forecasts in you can open up that spreadsheet on the 19th of the month and see that, maybe, you know, 25 percent of your students still have to enter a forecast. And even send an e-mail out to get those students as a quick reminder.

Perhaps my most exciting announcement on slide 50 is that FREDcast is going mobile with its own app. The app is currently in development and is expected to be released sometime in 2018. With the app students will be able to join leagues, enter forecasts and view their scores all from their mobile phone. The app will also feature badges and push notifications to remind students about forecasts. It has a lot of really exciting features and I think it’s going to really reward consistent game play. It also brings FREDcast into the classroom in a new way. Because it would be really easy on the first day of classes to write a league invite code that you’ve created ahead of time up on the whiteboard and then have each student pull out their phone, download the app, and enter their first set of forecasts right there on the spot. That’s everything that I will cover today about FREDcast and I will hand it back to Denise for questions.

Denise Qaoud: All right. Thanks, Hannah. So at this time we would love to take audience questions.  So, go ahead and click on the “Ask Question” button in the webinar tool to submit your question. And we do have a few questions already rolling in. The first question we have is, GDP is revised regularly. How does FREDcast handle that?

Hannah Shell: Yes. That’s a great question. So, GDP in FREDcast is only forecasting the initial release. So, for those of us data wonks out there we know that GDP is actually released three times. So we have an initial release, then we have, I think they call it preliminary, and then you have final. So we’re always going to forecast that initial release which comes out the month after the end of the quarter for when GDP is measured. So, you know, right now we are in the fourth quarter. So we are going to have an initial release of fourth quarter GDP coming out in the end of January. And it always follows that same pattern.

Denise Qaoud: Cool. Thank you for that. Let’s see. The next question that we have: Do students receive grades when completing FRED Interactives?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Yeah, they do. They receive grades for completing the pre-test and a grade for completing the post-test. If you have an instructor account on Econ Lowdown you can see those grades.

Denise Qaoud: Awesome. Thank you. Let’s see. The next question we have: Are there lesson plans that complement FRED Interactive online modules?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Yes. We have several. We are just completing the development of one for teaching information literacy skills associated with FRED. And we also have lesson plans for playing FREDcast in the classroom.

Denise Qaoud: Thank you. Next question: Where can I learn more about teaching with FRED graphs?   

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: My starting point will always be the educational resources of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. So, if you are not familiar with those, go look for them.

Denise Qaoud: All right. Thank you. Okay. I’ll pause just a minute to see if we get some more questions coming in. Again, just click the “Ask Question” button to submit your question. We have some time here so we would love to hear from you. I’m just going to pause and see if we have any more questions rolling in. Okay. At this time I don’t see any more questions. So, Hannah… Oh, we just got a question. Okay. Do you have very many microeconomic topics, not just macro?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: For FRED interactives, when we developed the lessons, we had very much in mind the concept of comparative advantage. We use FRED data to teach that microeconomic concept we cover when we talk about international trade. So, I will encourage you to check it out. FRED also has, among its 500,000 series, many that are useful for teaching micro economic concepts. There is a lesson about how to use FRED data to teach price elasticity of demand. That is very popular. So I will encourage you again to check the resources of the education department of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Denise Qaoud: All right. Thank you. Can you just remind our audience again what that website is for Econ Lowdown?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Econlowdow.org.

Denise Qaoud: Oh. There we go. All right. Let me see if we have more questions rolling in. Okay. The next question: Can an elasticity be calculated with FRED data?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: Yes. In the lesson we have developed you can use gasoline prices and the quantity consumed of gasoline to generate a scatter plot that will represent a downward sloping demand curve. Then you can calculate price elasticity of demand. And also other price elasticities of demand. You can calculate cross-price elasticities of demand. FRED has a wealth of data and therefore a great variety of topics that you can explore using real data.

Denise Qaoud: All right. Great. Thank you. Let me just pause a second to see if we have any more questions. Okay. At this time I don’t see any more questions. So, Hannah, Diego, do you guys have any closing comments that you’d like to share with our audience?

Diego Mendez-Carbajo: I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about how to use active teaching in the classroom. Thank you.

Hannah Shell: Yes. Thank you so much for participating in our webinar today. And I hope that those of you who have heard of FREDcast but aren’t playing are encouraged to go out and give it a try. And for those of you who have never heard of it I hope you are double encouraged to go out and give it a try.  

Denise Qaoud: Absolutely. Well, thank you all so much for joining today. If you joined us via the webinar tool you’ll likely see a survey link pop up on your screen. Please take a moment to complete that and let us know how we’re doing. We’ll also be sending the survey out via e-mail. And you only need to fill that out once. And with that I will officially bring this session to a close. Thanks for joining us and have a great rest of your day.

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