Four third graders from the Christina School District’s Jennie E. Smith Elementary School arrived at the Executive Banquet and Conference Center in Newark, DE last month excited and prepared to compete in the 34th annual Meaningful Economics (ME) Competition.
Judges came prepared, too, ready to review the work of 48 students representing 13 different New Castle County elementary schools that day, grading whether teams carefully followed instructions when tackling each of three rounds of competition. This long-running elementary school contest, produced by Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship (CEEE) out of the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, is designed to test students’ knowledge, teamwork and creativity when solving problems related to personal finance, economics and entrepreneurship.
Elementary students’ first challenge was to find a productive way to allocate human resources and work together as a team. Their goal was to quickly, accurately and neatly assemble ten complete personal finance activity kits that were based on the story Shiny Pennies. The booklet describes an alligator who hopes to buy a piece of candy but it can’t until he earns, is gifted and finds enough pennies to do so. The completed activity kits, if properly assembled, would be used by the CEEE as part of its Economics for Kids–Kindergarten curriculum and distributed to teachers across the state.
The team from Jennie Smith brainstormed which members would be assigned various tasks: who would count out and neatly cut the grapefruit-sized pennies, who would separate the alligator images, who would cut and paste the logo for the ME competition onto the back of the activity’s instruction booklet, who would fold and record their squad’s identifying number on each of the booklets, and who would place all of the required items securely into a large Ziplock bag, along with a copy of the storybook that would provide the backdrop for the lesson.
Jennie Smith team members worked calmly and diligently, and were among the first of the competitors to finish the initial challenge. When done, they admired their work, stood up and gathered together for a group hug.
“We finished fifteen minutes early, so I think we did well,” said Sophia Lkharz, who admitted to having jitters when she was first dropped off at the venue, seeing the other kids from different schools also arriving there to compete.
“At first I was really nervous, and then I came here and saw my friends, and then I was like okay, I can do this,” Lkharz said.
The ME Competition was last held in 2019 and returned for the first time since the pandemic began. It was again hosted over a three-day period in northern Delaware– a separate day reserved for each of 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. The following week on a single day of competition, all three grades were assembled in Sussex County for separate grade-level competitions, convening at Indian River School District’s John M. Clayton Elementary School in Frankford, Delaware. The ME Competition is produced in both New Castle and Sussex Counties with support from Bank of America and Discover Bank.
Scaled down by more than 60% to accommodate social distancing guidelines this year, almost 200 students from 14 schools still competed in the four days of competition.
Timothy Werbrich, an advanced academics teacher at May B. Leasure Elementary School, also in the Christina School District, welcomed each of his third grade students that morning outside of the venue, snapping pictures of their eager faces as their parents dropped them off.
“They are excited to be here and to know that something special awaits them. No matter how they fare today, they are already looking forward to next year when they’ll have a chance to return as fourth graders,” Werbrich said.
Werbrich, who has been bringing teams to the competition for 20 years, said he saw the importance of the competition immediately.
“I think the financial and economic lessons that ME instills are very important for these kids, because they’re not often taught about managing their money, especially when it comes to investing and entrepreneurship. When this program first came up, I made sure my kids were to be involved to make sure they were exposed to these kinds of things,” he said.
As the third grade Newark competition progressed, students collaborated to complete a multiple choice team test, answering questions that tested their acumen in economics, personal finance and entrepreneurship. Watching the young students wrestle with the questions and present reasoning for what they thought to be the correct answers demonstrated that their teachers– many of whom have also been bringing teams to ME for more than a decade– had prepared them well, not only for this day of competition but also for lessons that will prove valuable to both their ongoing education and their future financial lives.
Students’ third and final round of competition involved creating a new product that would address a need– introducing a new retail ice cream store that would rival existing favorites– and then developing a marketing plan for the business they created. When finished, students had to pitch their idea to a panel of judges, which consisted of volunteers and CEEE personnel. The problem along with the level of difficulty would change daily for each grade level.
“The ME Competition provides an opportunity for students to test their knowledge of economic and personal finance concepts in a competitive setting with their peers. More importantly, students are able to apply what they have learned to produce products and solve problems outside of a typical school setting,” said Bonnie Meszaros, associate director of CEEE.
Meszaros said the competition also fosters soft skills that students might not learn in the classroom such as team building, collaboration, time management and presentation skills.
“CEEE is intentional in providing this programming to not only promote the teaching of economics and personal finance but also for students to see how what they learn can be applied to real-world problems.”
For their problem solving idea, Leasure students created a new pizza-flavored ice cream, which would be widely sold in household name stores. Students illustrated a colorful ice cream cone designed with pepperoni and inside of a pizza-flavored cone. The team assigned each member a speaking role so that all had the chance to project their voices and formally present their ideas to judges.
“I really hope that we win,” said Rhys Scott, who helped draw their colorful ice cream cone.
After students ate lunch, they participated in a human scavenger hunt, designed to encourage networking. Students went looking for others in the room who could answer ‘yes’ to a grid of questions. The idea was for them to step outside of their comfort zone and introduce themselves to strangers, meeting new people and learning something new about someone that they previously hadn’t known.
At the end of the event, winners in each round of testing were recognized with first to fourth place ribbons. Parents were invited to arrive in time to celebrate with their students. By the end of the contest, the room was filled with blue, red, white and yellow ribbons, and lots of smiles.
Students also got a chance to write a slogan, design an image and choose a color that would all be used on a t-shirt to be worn by hundreds of students at the next year’s ME Competition. This year, purple shirts with puzzle pieces filled the event space; the slogan invited students to Put the Pieces together with ME! The winning entry had been submitted back in 2019 by Daphnis Mock while attending The Jefferson School in Sussex County.
In a full circle moment for the competition, Las Americas Aspira Academy third grade teacher, Diana Magana, shared that she was bringing a group of students back to the competition that she herself had once participated in as a student many years ago before she started teaching. Remembering her own experience fondly, she went about the hard work of choosing which of her social studies and civics students would most benefit and best perform.
“This experience is very personal to me, as I participated in this competition many years ago when I was a student,” Manga said. Remembering how proud she was to participate, Manga said she wanted her students to experience that same feeling. This year was the second year that she entered a team.
“I’m very excited to have them here and to have them experience and remember what I experienced many years ago, and still remember today.”