This 26-minute podcast was released Feb. 10, 2021.
“I think it is critical that we teach basic economics to kids and then build on it year after year, just like we would with any other discipline,” says Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Katrina Stierholz, St. Louis Fed vice president and director of library and research information services.
Katrina Stierholz: Hello, I’m Katrina Stierholz and you’re listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today, I’m speaking with Mary Suiter. Mary is an assistant vice president and the officer responsible for economic education at the St. Louis Fed. Hi, Mary, thank you for joining me today.
Mary Suiter: Hi, Katrina, thanks for having me.
Stierholz: Mary, you’ve been a leader in economic education for more than 30 years. Here at the St. Louis Fed, you lead a team of educators who develop award-winning educational resources for students from pre-K through college as well as professional development for educators. How did you come to choose the study of economics and work in the field of economic education?
Suiter: Well, Katrina, I really fell into economics and economic education. My husband and I were married at 19, the thing you tell your own children not to do, and I worked while he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Rolla. And he enrolled in graduate school and got a job as a teaching assistant. I got a full scholarship in ceramic engineering and started on my bachelor’s degree. And there came a point where we decided one of us needed to work full-time, we were needing additional funds. So, he got a job in St. Louis. I couldn’t continue engineering school here, so I transferred to UMSL and I took some classes in the college of business and a microeconomics class. And I hated the accounting classes that I took but I loved the economics class. It was as though a light bulb went off; I wondered why no one had ever told me about economics before, no one had ever explained these things to me.
And so, I ended up taking another economics class and it happened to be taught by the same professor. And one day, in the hallway outside of class, she stopped me and asked me if I ever considered majoring in economics, and I hadn’t. I had never thought about it. And I said, “Well, I have all this math from engineering, and I don’t want to lose it, I’ve already lost enough engineering credits, so will my math transfer?” And she said, “Yes, it’ll transfer to a B.S. in economics.” And I said, “I’m in.” And that’s how I ended up with a degree in economics. Then I was in the econ department office one day, because I had a child at home, I was looking for something part-time. And that same professor happened to be in the office, and she said, “I want to hire you to work at the Center for Economic Education.” And I said, “OK. I don’t know what a Center for Economic Education is, but OK.” And she hired me and that’s how I started out in economic education at UMSL.
Stierholz: So, the University of Missouri, you had the economics degree and then you took a position at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education, also at the University of Missouri. What was it that you did there and what did you learn that prepared you for your work at the Fed?
Suiter: Oh, wow, I learned so much. I started out as the school services coordinator. The state of Missouri for the first time had requirements for teachers K-12 to integrate economics into their elementary classroom and so on. So, I started by reading social studies textbooks and outlining what economics could be taught within the context of the content in the textbook. So, I began that work and I was lucky enough to work with the professor I mentioned, Sarapage McCorkle and her colleague from Ladue school district, Elaine Coulson. And they taught me a lot about how to work with teachers, how to develop curriculum materials that would be useful in a classroom.
So I learned the kind of work that teachers do and I really learned to have a great deal of respect for the work that teachers do in the classroom and to learn that not everyone can teach. You have to know some content to teach but you also have to really be dedicated to helping kids learn what you want them to learn in a classroom, and that’s really valuable. And I began to help write some lessons and activities that would help teachers teach economic content in a classroom. Particularly at that point in elementary classrooms, which was fun because it tended to be very creative and you had to work really hard to come up with strategies that would make it engaging and interesting for kids, which I really liked.
Then I was lucky enough to spend two summers at the University of Delaware getting a master’s in economic education. And in between I took education classes and then, in ’89 I ended up with my master’s in economic education. And there, I met a woman who to this day is a mentoring friend. I read the literature in economic education and began to understand the field and what it took to create a program that would work for teachers, to help them understand the economics and how to teach it. That really kind of jumpstarted my career in economic education. With that master’s degree I was able to teach at UMSL and I taught a specialized course for elementary education majors called Economics for the Elementary Classroom. I went on to become the assistant director at the center and then later the associate director.
I just really learned all the important tools that I would need about curriculum development, about working successfully with teachers. And then, the Center also had to raise the money needed to support its work so, I learned about grant writing and really learning to be entrepreneurial and innovative so that we could come up with money to fund programs and keep the Center running. And I think those are tools that I brought with me to the St. Louis Fed—so, but curriculum development, presenting good programs for teachers—but I also think I’m still innovative within the Fed’s culture, which I would think people would think isn’t very innovative. But we still have to be innovative in the types of programming and materials we provide for teachers. So, I learned so much from my colleagues there, Sarapage, Elaine Coulson and then Bonnie Meszaros at the University of Delaware. Tools that have carried me well throughout my career.
Stierholz: So, you mentioned just now that you were really focused on the elementary level, which I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider a time to teach economics. Many students never take an economics course at all in the K-12 experience. But you focused a lot on the elementary years. Why is that important?
Suiter: When that light bulb went off for me a couple of things happened. I learned that economics teaches some skills and some tools about making decisions and cost/benefit analysis and thinking carefully about decisions, whether they’re personal decisions or decisions for your family, your community.
I really see economics as providing tools that are beneficial to anyone. So, you get an economics course, you get a basic understanding of the economy in which you live, how it works. And you begin to understand how the pieces fit together and you are less likely to feel victimized or left out if you understand what’s going on and how you can interject yourself in these different parts of the economy and what you can do to better yourself.
It provides decision-making tools for kids, and I think we should start early. There’s research that demonstrates kids have misconceptions about the economic world in which they live. And in order to really build on their understanding of the economy, we’ve got to correct those misconceptions.
When my kids were little and they wanted something I couldn’t afford, their response would be, “Just write a check for it.” Right? Well that, to me, is a signal that they don’t really understand what that check is.
Today kids are more likely to say, “Well, just use your credit card. Just get the money out of the ATM.” They’re building their understanding of the world by watching what you do. But that doesn’t mean their understanding is accurate. So, correcting misinformation and then building on that.
There’s also research within the last seven or eight years in England that kids actually begin to develop their financial habits as early as 7. So, if we want them to make better decisions about saving and spending, we have to intervene earlier and teach them about making careful decisions with their money, careful decisions about their education, careful decisions about their lives. We want to start that early and build on it. So, that’s why I think it is critical that we teach basic economics to kids and then build on it year after year just like we would with any other discipline.
Stierholz: So, thinking about what you’ve done for the field, you’ve done a lot, too, to teach the teachers. You’ve done so much for the field of economic education. You developed and led an international Train the Writers program. You’ve taught educators around the world. You were president of the National Association of Economic Education and you served on writing committees for the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics and the National Standards for Financial Literacy. Basically, you have really contributed in all areas of economic education, training people who then turn around and teach economics.
So, what did you learn from those experiences? Why did you do it?
Suiter: Often those committees, the writing committees, for example, those were dominated by male Ph.D. economists, some of whom had little respect for what I and other colleagues who were doing economic education might bring to the table. And so, you had to learn to work with those folks and try to get your point across and help them understand why you were advocating for a particular concept or standard or benchmark to be included. Or why you saw something in a particular way relative to the standards and benchmarks.
You had to really learn cooperation, compromise and to persevere. They were always projects that were on a tight timeline and really important projects if we were going to move the discipline of economic education forward, you know? Having standards was critical, having standards that teachers and school districts and schools could use to develop curriculum and so forth. So, those were really key experiences. And again, I learned a lot from listening to the other people on the committee, trying to formulate my thinking about particular concepts and topics and being able to express that to them. And accept gracefully when I didn’t necessarily get what I wanted, which is difficult sometimes.
In terms of the international work, I was lucky enough to work for the Council for Economic Education; they had an international division at that time. And they had funding from the Department of Education and they had a Train the Trainers program. The Train the Trainers program was designed to teach economic content—and how to teach economic content to teachers and professors in Russia and the former Soviet Republics. So, this was after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was so interesting, so fascinating. They would do four programs in a series; each program would be a week long, from Sunday to Saturday. One program would be on fundamental or basic economics, then micro, then a program on macro and one on international trade. And there were faculty who staffed these different programs and would teach content but then would also demonstrate lessons and activities that you could use to teach that content to a group of high school students or introductory economics course at the college level.
So, all of this was pretty new to the participants. We were teaching in English with translation typically into Russian. And so, that was very challenging. It was exciting, it was interesting, the people were fascinating. And, having grown up when I did during the Cold War, with people viewing these people as my enemies, right? I meet these folks and I find that they are indeed very much like me with the same interests in having their families be cared for, their children get education. I just learned so much about the fact that people, on a person-to-person level, want the same things in the world for their families and their kids. So, that was really valuable for me and an experience that I never anticipated happening growing up in St. Louis, in a small community in St. Louis.
So, that was exciting and then, the next step of that was, as we did this, we and the participants recognized that, in order for them to be successful with this program in their own countries, in their own language, they either had to modify our lessons, because they really didn’t fit, right? So, you know, we’d have lessons with examples about what happens to the price of hamburger on Memorial Day weekend, and they’d be, “What? What are you talking about?” Right? And help them develop things that were relevant to their culture and help them develop lessons that were useful in their classrooms.
So, they really asked for that, and I and two colleagues developed the Train the Writers program to work with participants to help them learn to write lessons—active strategy, hands-on lessons that they could use in their classrooms. So, we did that, we taught the first program in Warsaw, Poland. We had 24 participants. They had to be fluent in English because, of course, we were going to review what they wrote and none of us were fluent in any of their languages. So, they had to speak and write English and they wrote lessons out by hand and we reviewed them and gave them feedback. And it was a laborious task and that was the first and the last time that we did it all by hand so, we did learn that as well.
But that was an extraordinary experience because they had just fabulous ideas and would develop those into lessons that you knew they were going to take back and give to teachers to help teachers teach in the classroom. So, it just was so rewarding to be able to do something like that and I’m so grateful for the experiences that I had, meeting people from all over the world and working with them on a common mission to help people better understand economics.
Stierholz: That sounds amazing.
Suiter: It was, it’s absolutely amazing.
Stierholz: The series is called the Women in Economics Podcast Series. From your perspective, why is it important to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to study economics?
Suiter: So many people have answered this question in this series that I feel as though I kind of may not have much to add here. But it seems to me that I can’t really understand the experience of a Black male who grew up in an urban environment in the United States. I don’t have the same experience, I don’t have their same life experience, growing up in poverty. I can’t tell their story and I can’t explain how they might respond to different issues or policies because I don’t have that lived experience.
So, we need to have people at the table who have experience and who understand what it is that women and underrepresented minorities face in their lives.
Stierholz: I know you mentor women in economics and in other fields. What should we be doing to mentor underrepresented students or employees to help them develop their career?
Suiter: I think we need to start earlier when it comes to economics. As I said, kids can’t see themselves as economists when they’re 18 if they’ve never had an economics course, if they have no idea what economics is. So, we need to start earlier to let them know that economics is even a career possibility. Last year, I talked to a high school math club and I showed them jobs that economists with just a bachelor’s degree in economics, jobs that people might have. And not one of them had the world “economist” in them. So, how would a kid even know that an economics degree could lead you to that kind of a job? So, we need to start earlier to let them know that this is even an option. That there are people out there who look like them who have studied economics and have careers in the field. So, we need to show them.
And then, in terms of mentoring them when they’re studying economics and as employees, I think we have to be a little more specific with suggestions on how to deal with difficult situations. We have to actually say, “OK, if the gentleman at the meeting talks over you, you need to turn to him nicely and say, “I wasn’t finished yet, if you could please let me finish.” Now, they’ve had a real recent example of that, but I’ve had that situation in meetings and you’ve got to say, “Hey, I’m still here, I’m still speaking.”
So, giving them some tools, some ideas about how to do this without being rude or disrespectful. It’s one thing to say that we care and we want to develop your career, but I think we actually have to give them some guidance on what are some next steps? And what should you do next? And what options are available to you? And encouraging them to try new things and step out a little bit and take some risk in their career—are important things that we should be doing for them. Because we really do want to develop the best workforce that we can, and I think mentoring is a way to help support that.
I think we also have to point out when there’s something maybe they’re upset about but it’s not that, you know, it’s not that critical. And just acknowledge, “Yes, you’re upset but, hey, it’s going to be OK and let’s move on and it’ll be all right.” So, specific suggestions and ideas for them, really kind of pushing them a little bit to take some risk, to look for new opportunities. But being serious about developing their careers and really working with them and providing mentorship, I think, is the best thing that we can do.
Stierholz: So, Mary, you helped launch this Women in Economics Podcast Series in collaboration with a successful Women in Economics Symposium put on by the St. Louis Fed. You’ve also assisted other Federal Reserve banks across the country plan similar events for college students and professors, with the goal of encouraging more women and underrepresented minorities to enter and advance in the field of economics. So, what does “women in economics” mean to you?
Suiter: Women in economics means to me, women supporting one another in the field of economics. I’ve had colleagues mention that they’ve had struggles with other women in the field. But what I would hope we would do as women in economics is support one another, create a network of women who help one another and help move one another’s careers forward, whether in small ways or significant ways. So, if that professor hadn’t stopped me in the hallway and said, “Would you consider majoring in economics?” I might not have ever made that choice. But she took that little step, right? And I think taking those little steps for one another, being there to support one another is what women in economics means to me.
So, you know, I want to be there to help young women, to answer questions for them when I can. To connect them with other people who might help them. I see this a lot on Twitter where women will agree to review something someone else has written in the field of economics to help them out. You know, to just really be a colleague and show them how colleagues interact with one another and how they support one another.
So, with the symposium, one of our goals was to have these young women connect with others who already had careers in the field. But also, to connect with one another, to begin to form that network of colleagues, people that you’re going to be able to reach out to who will help you if you’re doing research, write your first article, if you’re taking a job, help you understand how to do some kind of analysis.
But to really be there for you. And then also, when something happens that feels wrong, you have someone to reach out to and say, “This happened to me in a meeting,” or “This happened to me at this conference and I’m not really sure how to handle it.” And now you’ve got someone who says, “Here’s what I’d do,” or “Here’s what I think.”
That’s what I see women in economics as. And that’s the goal of the symposium is to help young women connect with women who have jobs but also connect with one another. And create this network of women who are in a position to help one another advance in the field and advance the field, right?
So, you advance in the field but you also are able to advance the field of economics because you’re bringing more diversity to the table. You’re bringing more diversity to the research. You’re bringing more diversity to the types of data that we look at, the types of data that we have in FRED. We’re doing all of those things because we are a network of women trying to improve the field. So that’s what it means to me.
Stierholz: Mary, is there anything we haven’t talked about that you want to make sure the listeners hear?
Suiter: I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of opportunities. But I’ve also been really smart enough to take those opportunities even when they involved a little risk, to work really hard. And I just want to say that I’m grateful to all of the women in my life who have mentored me. Starting with my mother who spent most of her time telling me how important it was to get an education. And to all the other women—economists and colleagues—who have helped me have the success that I have. I didn’t get here by myself. I am a hard worker but I didn’t get here by myself. I would like to express gratitude to all of those people.
Stierholz: And, Mary, I consider you a mentor and I see you mentor women all the time. I think you have given back as much or more than you have gotten. So—
Suiter: Well, thanks, Katrina, I appreciate that.
Stierholz: Mary, when you got your Ph.D., can you tell us a little bit about that process and what was involved?
Suiter: Sure. So, the person who was the director of the Center for Economic Education at the time was retiring and she told me that if I wanted to be the director, I was going to have to get a Ph.D. Didn’t have to be a Ph.D. in economics, it could be a Ph.D. in education, but I had to get a Ph.D. And I had three kids, and so, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in teaching and learning, a Ph.D. in education and I did that and worked full-time, went to school at night and took classes. And it was a struggle, but I was doing it and I was determined to do it. And then, she retired, and the position was advertised as master’s required, Ph.D. preferred.
I was a little upset by that but I was on the path. So, I applied and I got the job and I hadn’t finished my Ph.D. yet. And I said to my husband, “So, a good economist would say some cost—let the Ph.D. go. Yeah, you’ve done all that work but you’ve got the job you want.” And my husband said, “Oh, no, no, no, you’ve got to finish.” And so, I did, I finished. It was a challenge. But had I not finished that, I don’t think I’d have the current position that I have. It was often very challenging but I’m really grateful that I persevered and did it. Because I was able to secure this position at the Fed and that has allowed me to do some things that I never dreamt of doing like creating Econ Lowdown and putting all of the material that can be used in the virtual classroom.
Stierholz: So, was there a particular thing—besides the degree, of course—but a thing learned in the process of getting the Ph.D.?
Suiter: So, I think that getting the Ph.D. was the first time that I ever really felt successful. It was like, “You did this, you really did this. You got this Ph.D., you are a success.” And I just remember thinking that my parents, particularly my mother, would be so very proud of that. But to be able to really reflect and say, “You are pretty good at this, right? You really are pretty good at this.” So, I think, for me, it brought a lot of closure to the whole process.
Stierholz: Mary, thank you so much for spending time today to tell us your story and share your wisdom. To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon, that’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics from TuneIn.” Thank you.