Using FRED® to Teach Unemployment

Data and statistics have always been important components of economics education, but these lessons traditionally rely on made-up data that provide round answers and clear solutions. These perfectly packaged numbers used in classrooms often fail to accurately represent the type of data that is used in the real world. With this issue in mind, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has created an innovative new curriculum using a tool called FRED® that allows students to learn economic concepts from real data.

Delaware social studies teachers state-wide were invited to join the University of Delaware’s Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship (CEEE) virtually for a lecture with Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ Senior Economic Education Specialist Diego Mendez-Carbajo. Mendez-Carbajo was first invited to become a UD Visiting Scholar two years ago and he regularly presents to students in the CEEE’s Master of Arts in Economics and Entrepreneurship for Educators program. He was also a vital resource when the CEEE’s professional development programming transitioned to a virtual format during the COVID-19 pandemic.


In this presentation, Mendez-Carbajo introduced participants to FRED®, a free set of online tools provided by the St. Louis Fed that allows users to find, graph, transform and map economic data that can be used to help educators teach the concept of unemployment.


“The idea of active learning with FRED® data is something that has been circulating for a while,” Mendez-Carbajo said during the presentation. “The basic argument that I’ve made about this is that using real and relevant data to teach economics allows the students to ground what are otherwise fairly abstract, theoretical concepts.”


Mendez-Carbajo began his presentation by reviewing U.S. labor data from the Federal Reserve System, Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Using the FRED® tools, he reviewed data from major recent U.S. economic events including the recession from 2007-2009, recovery in the early 2010s and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mendez-Carbajo shared suggestions for how this real data could be used to teach economic concepts in social studies classrooms.

“We can tell them [students] about calculating the unemployment rate, we can tell them about adding the number of people employed and unemployed to compute the size of the labor force and we can use that to calculate the unemployment rate,” Mendez-Carbajo explained. “We can do those exercises with made-up data, we can do those exercises with conveniently round figures that will make our grading much, much easier, but students are going to latch on to these ideas more effectively if we use real data. This is where FRED® comes in.”

This presentation on FRED® is part of the St. Louis Fed’s data literacy series, the Composition Effect, which aims to use unemployment data to demonstrate why using a single statistic to describe a diverse population, such as the U.S. labor force, leads to undercounting and misrepresentation of many individuals, particularly minority populations. Mendez-Carbajo presented a complete lesson plan, utilizing data from FRED®, which helps students better understand how to utilize statistics and data to more accurately analyze large, diverse populations.

“This is one way of teaching about issues of diversity and inclusion using real data. The data available through FRED® allow us to assess a wide range of current economic conditions.” Mendez-Carbajo noted.

During the lesson, participants asked questions and discussed other opportunities to incorporate FRED® into their own classrooms. The teachers left the lecture with the complete lesson plan using FRED® from the St. Louis Fed that they can adapt to their students’ needs, along with the ability to incorporate this tool into their existing curriculum.

This lecture is just one example of the many educational programs that the CEEE has provided to educators throughout this unique and challenging school year. The Center has established weekly office hours, put together a very robust academic year calendar of online professional learning for teachers and scheduled many student events—all designed to help Delaware teachers and students get the most out of their new online and hybrid learning.

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