Global experience starts with a ‘YES!’

When I received an email last April about applications for the Young Economic Summit program, there was no question I wanted my students to participate.

I’ll be honest – they had me at “Free trip to Germany.”

I didn’t really think through the drawbacks, like planning for a sub (for a week!), preparing for the possibility of COVID quarantine in Europe, trying to sleep at a noisy youth hostel, navigating canceled trains, or jetlag on the way home.

And I’m glad I didn’t second guess it  – because our week at YES! 2022 was one of the best educational experiences of my 25+ year teaching career.

What is YES!?

The German YES! Program launched in 2015, with the support of ZBW (the Leibniz Information Center for Economics in Kiel) and the Joachim Herz Stiftung in Hamburg. 

Each year, YES! brings together economists, students and government officials to tackle the most pressing issues of the day. This year’s student teams – which also included British and American participants – each chose one issue to focus on, from a pool of topics like “addressing challenges of discrimination and migrant integration,” “building sustainable communities,” and “using taxes rather than lockdowns to fight a pandemic.”

What’s unique and engaging about this program is that the students develop and research their own solutions to these problems (with some expert guidance), then present them in an ideas festival format to an audience of both peers and professionals. 

It’s not really about impressing adults – it’s about persuading each other.

After each 10-minute presentation, experts ask questions for 15 minutes, then students in the audience ask questions for 10 more minutes. Each idea is thoroughly hashed out, and students continue talking about them during coffee breaks, at lunch and into the evening.

So What Did Teenagers Propose?

The student solutions were all over the map. 

A British team proposed a £10 excursion tax on each trip to the supermarket during a pandemic, to reduce crowding and exposure. 

A German team proposed installing scented gels into the air filters on public buses to improve the riders’ experience. (My team did not care for the sample scents.)

An American team proposed building a “Power Park” in Atlanta to demonstrate sustainable living practices, including a model home that better manages water usage.

My students took on the issue of workplace discrimination against migrant women in both the U.S. and the European Union. They proposed a jobs portal that would collect applicants’ resume data while hiding information that could induce bias, and they made a solid case for it.

The winning German team – selected by student vote – proposed an app that would track companies’ online data collection and help consumers see how their data is used. (Learn more here.) They’ll get to present it to members of the parliament this winter.

A Winning Idea

My four incredible students – Jerry, Michael, Matteo and Aurora – didn’t win. Among international teams, that honor went to the Sheffield Girls 6th Form (UK), who developed a set of ready-to-use lessons about migrants and migration. (Learn more here.) 

They may have been disappointed, but I wasn’t. 

Although winning would have been gratifying (and they put in a lot of work), it was incredible just to be there. Three of my four students had never been to Europe, and one had never traveled outside the U.S. They didn’t just learn from the presentations and discussion, they learned from informal interactions with their German and British peers – at breakfast, during breaks, and playing cards in the evening.

They also learned from their experiences navigating public transit (“never get on a train if you aren’t sure where it’s going!”), eating new foods, touring historical sites in Berlin, and visiting a concentration camp. 

The best idea presented, in my opinion, was the idea of bringing students together like this in the first place.

What’s Next

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to participate in YES! again. I talked to organizers about promoting the program at the American Council for Economic Education conference this fall, but they were hesitant. They don’t know if they’ll have funding to bring American teams back in the future.

I was really sad to hear that. My students will still have the opportunity to participate in a lot of other cool “idea” contests, like Junior Achievement Company Program and Minnesota Cup. But the emphasis in those activities is slightly different, more on developing a business (and earning revenue) than on proposing wide-ranging solutions to global problems.

And sadly, these competitions don’t force them to leave their safe, comfortable, Minnesota bubble. They don’t push them out in the world, where they have to explain themselves and their ideas to teenagers with entirely different life experiences and perspectives.

I hope there will be a way to continue American participation in YES! Down the road, I’d love to find a way to create a regional competition here, like they have in Germany and now in the UK. I’d love to see more opportunities for American youth to work with their global peers on tackling global problems.

If you think that’s a worthy goal, let me know. We can figure out a way to do this. We can’t let this idea fade when it’s just getting started.