Bruse T. Elmslie
Excellence in Teaching
Professor of Economics
Whittemore School of Business and Economics
Right: Bruce Elmslie with students at the "widget factory."
"His entry point is always a real-world issue."
On a Wednesday morning in June, the mood is tense in Room 308 of McConnell Hall. A cluster of students huddles around a table, ripping and folding in a flurry of white copy paper. The guy operating the stapler is working as fast as he can, punching away, muttering under his breath when the thing jams up. There's laughter, but everyone's focused. It's a race against the clock here in this miniproduction facility, staffed by students in Bruce Elmslie's Principles of Microeconomics class.
“Time's up!” says a voice from the floor, where another student is keeping time. The tally? Eleven. Elmslie records the number on the board, where the class can see the results of this experiment: Seven workers produced 11 “widgets” (a.k.a. pieces of paper folded three times and stapled). The tally has been going up steadily with each additional worker. But now there's a problem.
“We need another stapler,” says a member of the work team, pointing to the pile of unstapled widgets. “We're producing more than we can finish.” Additional workers are brought on for a few more rounds, but space is tight around the table. All the new “hires” can do is cheer the laborers on. Production levels out, then stalls. Voila! An economic truth becomes obvious: a variable input (labor) added to fixed input (capital) does not always result in increased production. Translation: Stapler overload has been reached.
By the time the factory workers return to their seats and Elmslie begins plotting the points of the production function on the board, his students are ready to grasp the concept behind the demonstration. The widget factory has done its job, providing tangible proof of why a production curve looks the way it does.
Widgets and curves–taken together, they sum up the teaching genius of Bruce Elmslie. “He can make very difficult concepts very easy to grasp,” says graduate student Sara Siegel.
Elmslie had an inkling he'd like teaching from way back. As an undergraduate, he was a tutor. As a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant. And he kept getting the same feedback: You make things easy to understand. Elmslie was hooked. “Trying to teach the principles of economics—and having someone respond to your explanation—it was terrific.”
Elmslie still thrives on student success. Teaching complex material to undergraduates, many of whom have never set foot in a calculus class, is a feat Elmslie is especially proud of. Take his economic growth class, for example. Students choose a specific country to study, with specific institutions and very real problems. “They are able to make quantum leaps in their abilities to analyze the economy,” Elmslie says. “It involves lots of advanced mathematics—a whole new level many never thought they could reach.”
In the end, students develop a recommendation on what to do to improve the growth rate of their chosen country. “His entry point is always a real–world issue,” says graduate student Arpita Banerjee, “and then he goes back to the theoretical models.”
Which explains why UNH's Budapest program is so important to Elmslie, who coordinates the study–abroad experience for WSBE students. With its rich and tragic history, Hungary is an ideal learning laboratory. “Just in the past 15 years it's become an emerging market economy,” says Elmslie, “and students get to see this firsthand. They live in a modern city, but five miles out, someone is plowing a field with a horse and a hand plow. Seeing an economy like that–full of contradictions–is a great experience.”
At its most basic level, Elmslie points out, economics is about those farmers behind their plows. It's also about students sitting in a university classroom. Those who study with Elmslie come away understanding this essential truth, which permeates his teaching: “Economics is everywhere,” he says. “It's always around you. It's about your life.”