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Economics department sees benefits of recent overhaul

By Elizabeth Myong     4/6/16 1:15am

Students have responded positively to an effort to revamp the economics department more than a year in the making, according to Sawyer Knight, a student on the Economics Student Advisory Board. The board has worked with Antonio Merlo, the economics department head and new dean of social sciences who was hired in 2014, to make changes through the Rice Initiative for the Study of Economics.

“Merlo has made it his mission to rework the department to be world-renowned and focused on empowering students,” Knight, a McMurtry College junior, said.

According to Knight, the initiative has implemented significant changes in three key areas: revamping of the major requirements, hiring new faculty and increasing accessibility.

The new requirements have sharper distinctions between the mathematical economic analysis major and the economics major, Knight said. In addition, electives have been improved, classes are being offered more frequently and there are a greater number of class offerings.

“From what I’ve seen with the underclassmen taking their [prerequisites], there’s been a refocus to having a solid mathematical and statistical background before jumping into the economics aspect of the major, which will probably help them in the long run,” Hanszen College senior Rachel Garber said.

However, Garber also said this will make the department less flexible for students who transition to the major later.

Another important change is the hiring of new faculty who are strong lecturers, like James DeNicco, who teaches the Principles of Economics (ECON 100) course. Under the revamped system, ECON 100 replaced ECON 201 as the department’s introductory course.

“I have a friend who had tried to take ECON 100 twice before this year, and dropped it twice because he either couldn’t get himself interested or the teacher couldn’t help him understand,” Hanszen junior Trenton Alexander said. “But when he took it this year, DeNicco was able to inspire intellectual curiosity in economics, and fostered that curiosity into an understanding of general economics and basic microeconomics.”

The initiative has additionally worked on making the department more accessible and receptive, Knight said.

“There are three different advisers with office hours three days a week every week,” Knight said. “There is also a suggestion box on the economics department website. Dr. Merlo himself is also available.”

Knight said Merlo has brought new energy and that, in the future, economics students and Rice students in general can anticipate further improvements to the economics department. Garber said the changes were vital to the success of the program.

“Considering how many students do major in economics, the changes were absolutely necessary,” he said. “Rolling it out to matriculating students does make the transition smoother, but also kind of leaves students, particularly sophomores and juniors, stuck in between.”

While Garber agrees with the changes, she said she wishes she could have benefited from the overhaul. Alexander said the changes are helping the department meet its goals.

“A lot of the changes are good in terms of aligning the department with Rice’s vision for what it wants its economics department to be,” Alexander said.

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