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Once Upon An Economy

University of North Carolina at Greensboro
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Jeff Sarbaum reaches his students through storytelling, energy and expertise

When Jeff Sarbaum was in graduate school at SUNY-Binghamton, he went camping in Maine’s Acadia National Park. As he walked along the coast, something in the water caught his eye: buoys of varying colors, each identifying a trap that someone had set. Instantly, the image reminded him of an economic theory. The buoys represented the various players in a market, all of whom offered an identical product: lobsters. It was the perfect example of competitive markets.

Jeff took a picture of the buoys. The image helped him create a narrative for his students through pictures and storytelling—a teaching tool that he uses to this day.

“Something simple and engaging like that can give students a great natural feel for an economic concept,” Jeff says. “It works a whole lot better than beginning a lesson with abstract graphs.”

The graphs come later in the course, but the stories set the stage.

“Dr. Sarbaum keeps the subject interesting by bringing a great energy to the room and using an engaging style of lecturing. He uses a lot of examples—both stories he created to help illustrate concepts and examples from the real world— which help bring economics to life within the classroom.”

– Lorissa Pagan ’14, MA ’15, currently pursuing a PhD in economics at UNCG  

In April, Jeff won the Bryan School’s Non-Tenure Track Teaching Excellence Award for his many successes as a longtime senior lecturer in the Department of Economics. He considers himself “an entertainer who knows a lot about economics,” and he clearly enjoys being animated in order to draw students in. His ability to employ storytelling to bring abstract ideas to life is one of his strengths as an educator. His research is another.

Jeff studies pedagogy and teaching-related topics—research geared toward improving the way we teach. His current project, “The Math You Need, When You Need It,” is funded by a $250k grant from the National Science Foundation. Along with two other principal investigators, he is building a tool to help students who are weak in math get up to speed so that they can be successful in their courses.

“We’ve realized they can do the math, they just struggle to contextualize it.”

Jeff and his partners, Scott Simpkins from North Carolina A&T University and Mark Meyer from Glendale Community College in California, will soon be able to help students with that translation problem. When their program launches, students will have access to a website hosted by the Science Education Research Council at Carleton College. The site will contain software that supports instructors from all over the world with content that ensures their students gain that critical math foundation.

Jeff has led the way in the Bryan School in building online courses as well, making them highly interactive—an effort that has helped the school create enrollment growth and provide opportunities for students to graduate on time. He also transformed the Principles of Microeconomics course, which was once all face-to-face in a large, 200-person lecture. Jeff “flipped it upside down,” capturing his lectures on video and on a WordPress website. Students go online to learn the content and then come to class once a week, where Jeff and PhD students work closely with them on hands-on problems.

“We seen students become more actively engaged with this format,” he says. “They actually get more individual attention this way.”

Every new approach and stage-setting story reflects Jeff’s philosophy: “You’ve got to make it relatable for students and help them understand that economics is a tool box. If they can learn five or six economic tools, they’ll be able to use them to become critical thinkers throughout every element of their lives.”