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Workshop Targets Financial Literacy

Teachers Explore Using Computer Games to Teach Finance

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Assoc. Prof. Harry Zhu of the Manning School of Business, far right, hosted a workshop for high school and college educators that explored ways to teach financial literacy through computer science.

By Jill Gambon

With the cost of higher education climbing and total student debt ballooning to more than $1 trillion, the need for financial literacy among students has never been greater. To address that need, Assoc. Prof. Harry Zhu of the Manning School of Business recently hosted a workshop for high school and college faculty to help develop strategies for teaching financial literacy through computer science and game-based learning.

During the two-day workshop, attendees heard about Zhu’s research on financial literacy and education, listened to presentations from other faculty and administrators and brainstormed ways to weave lessons about personal finance into assignments and curriculum.

“I came away with a number of ideas that are particularly useful as we are in the process of revising our curriculum,” says Dennis Gleason, engineering programs coordinator and a teacher at Malden Catholic High School.

The workshop was part of a research project that Zhu has been leading that focuses on using personal financial issues as a way to make computer programming relevant and engaging to students. The ultimate goal is for students to learn about managing money while mastering programming skills.

Financial literacy and computer programming are a perfect fit since many finance questions can be answered by using computers, says Zhu. Whether it’s calculating how much it costs to miss a class at college or creating a savings plan for a car, Zhu says using simple computer applications or games can help.

“One thing I can do as an educator is to equip students with knowledge so that they can use it to make wise decisions. In a digital economy, computers are everywhere. It is a pretty natural synergy between computing and personal financial literacy,” says Zhu.

Zhu and former colleagues from Old Dominion University began working on the project three years ago with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The team has developed a prototype game that is used as a teaching tool in a game development course taken by seniors and graduate students at Old Dominion. The researchers have been evaluating the effectiveness of linking computer programming with personal finance.
“The results so far indicate that the integration of financial literacy into computing education has helped students learn both topics effectively,” says Zhu.

Michael Penta, a computer and information science instructor at Northern Essex Community College, says the workshop gave him the opportunity to share ideas with other educators.

“We had great brainstorming sessions. Everyone in the room was passionate about education and financial literacy. They came up with ideas that I never would have thought of sitting in a room by myself,” says Penta, who earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from UMass Lowell.

Malden Catholic’s Gleason says he sees evidence of the need for better understanding of personal finances every day. Some students, he says, spend money daily on coffee drinks. Months later, some of those same students complain that they can’t afford to go to the prom, making no connection between the money spent on take-out and the potential savings that could have accrued if they skipped the coffee, Gleason says.

“The need for financial literacy is huge,” Gleason says. “There is no real understanding of the consequences of debt or of the impact of some of their financial choices.”

Malden Catholic is in the process of updating its introductory technology curriculum, which is designed to teach students simple programming as well as basic skills like using spreadsheets and creating presentations. Now, he envisions incorporating financial topics relevant to young teenagers, like how to save for a car or the prom.

Similarly, Penta says he will use some of the concepts covered in the workshop in his computer programming classes at Northern Essex. Integrating topics like managing money will make programming more relevant to them, he says.

“I’m a big proponent of contextualized learning,” Penta says. “I will definitely be using some of the material from the workshop in my classroom.” 

Looking ahead, Zhu wants to find ways to tap into students’ creativity and knowledge after they master the basics of computer science and money management. 

“I am confident that great ideas will come out when we empower our students with programming skills and financial knowledge,” he says.