Along with Red River wheat, Moorhead area — and Minnesota — is growing a crop of budding economists

The Red River may be famous for growing wheat, but there is a crop of budding economists coming out of Moorhead High School teacher Doug Johnson’s classes that’s gaining recognition, too.

Lukas Gemar, Adam Hannon-Hatfield, Jim Kallander and Ryan Vesledahl, representing Moorhead, beat out 13 other teams from around the state last week to win the Economics Challenge held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The four students took a test Monday to see if they will be one of six state champion teams competing for the national championship, sponsored by the Council on Economic Education in New York City May 22-24.

Johnson’s students have competed at the national level twice before, taking the title the first year his team competed in 2004 and coming in second in 2006. Last year’s team took second place in the state. “We’ve had a lot of luck,” Johnson said. “We’ve done quite well.”

It’s not just Moorhead either. Last year, Little Falls beat out more than 2,000 teams from across the country to become the national champions. Minnesota students and their coaches have reached the national contest in seven of the nine years of competition, more than any other state.

“We have a terrific bench of economics teachers across the state,” said Claudia Parliament, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council and a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, which organized the event.

Some schools are consistent contenders, but new schools are always entering, she said. “Once they get a taste for it, they become more competitive.” Parliament described this year’s competition as one of the closest she has seen, with Moorhead beating out second-place Eden Prairie in the final buzzer round.

The purpose of the 25-year-old competition is to “promote economic education and literacy … essential to have a successful future life as consumer, investor, saver, whatever,” Parliament explained.

Students are tested for their knowledge of macroeconomics, microeconomics, international economics and current events, with some “fun” questions thrown in, she explained. One question had contestants rearranging the letters in ‘alarming’ to come up with an economics term during the lightning round.

With economics front-page news these days, the past two years have been “a great time to teach economics,” Johnson said. The Fargo-Moorhead metro area, however, enjoys the lowest unemployment of any metro area in the nation. Johnson said the impact of the downturn in many case is something his students read about “rather than experience directly.”

Starting the year with 19 students competing for slots on his teams, Johnson met with the students once week to talk about assigned reading, including economics blogs and texts. The students, for example, “read articles pro and con on the stimulus package, then talked about theory underneath the arguments,” he said. He took two five-member teams to regional competition earlier this year in St. Cloud and the four-member team to Minneapolis last week.

This is Johnson’s 10th year teaching economics after a 15-year career as a lobbyist for Amoco and a stint as assistant attorney general for North Dakota before that.

He credits the competition with sparking his students’ interest in economics, and more. “Kids like competition; they have fun and look forward to it,” he said. “The competition is intense. They go up against some of the best schools in the nation. It’s fun for kids from Moorhead to compete against kids going to big schools in the city or private schools and do equally as well,” he concluded.

Council on Economic Education

In addition to sponsoring the competition for high school students, the Council encourages economic, personal finance and entrepreneurship education across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The most recent survey results, released in December, are summarized below for Minnesota and neighboring states:

2009 Survey of Economics, Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship Education
Source: U.S. Council on Economics Education
* Total number of states meeting criteria

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