Focus on Faculty: Steve Erfle
by Christine Baksi
May 15, 2013
professor of international business & management (IB&M) shares the
formula for a useful business education and how wine changed his teaching
Your managerial economics course is rigorous but
transformative, as evidenced by the accolades it receives from former students
who've gone on to successful careers in business and finance. What makes the
course daunting and rewarding at the same time?
The course is a
challenge for some because it requires competence in a variety of different
intellectual arenas as well as the ability to integrate those seemingly
disparate areas of thought. It's an intermediate microeconomics class taught
from an empirical perspective. Students learn constrained optimization and
introductory econometrics during the course of the semester. The driving
force behind the course is to try to simulate the kinds of decisions
students will analyze in the business world. They typically will make those
decisions by analyzing data and most often, that data will be organized in
Excel, which I use as a platform for teaching the entire course.
addition to lectures, there is a required weekly Excel lab, which provides
students the opportunity to dig in and apply what they have learned. Given
this topic coverage, and the requirement that all IB&M majors take the
course, I can see why some consider it daunting. End-of-semester evaluations
confirm that students only realize how rewarding this course is in hindsight.
But, as you note, I receive e-mails from former students often enough to know
that what I am doing is making a difference for them early in their
Would you characterize data-driven decision making as
one of your core teaching principles?
In the past few years I
would say that that is true, but it is not how I was initially trained as an
economist. Prior to my 1994-95 Seagram Classics Wine Company (SCWC)
sabbatical, I never taught a course from a data-driven perspective. My
training is as an economic theorist rather than as an empirical economist, but
I acted as a managerial economist for SCWC and returned to Dickinson
determined to create a course that simulated what I did for SCWC. The
resulting course, Managerial Economics, fits nicely into the IB&M major
that I helped introduce in the late 1990s. More than a 1,000 students have
taken my course, and I have become a coauthor of a managerial economics
One of my other core teaching principles involves trying to make
students see connections across academic disciplines. I am a strong believer
in interdisciplinary scholarship. For example, my first-year seminar, The
Role of Wine in American Society, examines the business, health and
political aspects of wine, as well as the political geography of local land
The Pennsylvania Department of Health tapped you to collect
and analyze data as part of its initiative to combat the childhood obesity
epidemic. What are your findings?
First, I would like to
acknowledge the seminal help I received from a former student, Brian
Kamoie '93, in making this research possible. I was searching for a
sabbatical project, and Brian introduced me to Everette James, who at the time
was secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PADoH). He was
implementing a pilot project called the Active Schools Program (ASP), which
provided small cash grants to 40 middle schools that agreed to institute daily
physical activity and to measure physical activity performance at the start and
end of the school year. I helped PADoH collect and analyze that data during my
2009-10 sabbatical. I also received a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
Active Living Research (ALR) grant in 2010 to spearhead a control school
analysis of the ASP. I have full data on more than 10,000 students, two thirds
of which undertook daily physical activity, and one third which did not. These
data show dramatic benefits to daily physical activity in increasing
physical-activity performance, as well as more modest but statistically
significant effects on decreasing Body Mass Index (BMI) and BMI percentile.
You describe empirical research as a nonlinear process and underscore
that point in your 300-level course syllabus. How do you teach students to rise
to the challenge of doing their own research?
Analysis of Middle School Obesity is essentially an applied econometrics
course. That I am allowed to teach this class as an IB&M elective is a
testament to the flexibility that we enjoy as Dickinson faculty members. I
provide students access to the data I collected from PADoH, through the
RWJF/ALR control school analysis and school-district-level data from PADoH as
well as the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the U.S. Census to
examine the spatial variation in obesity and academic performance in
I have taught this course three times, and I am happy to
say that students have risen to the challenge and produced substantive
original research during the semester. The poster session from the most
recent iteration was a huge success. Eleven students presented their
original research on a variety of topics of their own choosing; Two chose a
non-obesity related topic that builds on focal-behavior research I recently
published using this data.
I organize this course as a research
seminar. Students present their work to one another on a weekly basis and,
in the process, they learn from their classmates as well as from me.
"Excel as a Teaching Platform for
Managerial Economics," Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 19, No. 4; Winter
2001, pp. 480-486.
Paul G. Keat, Philip K.Y. Young, and Stephen E.
Erfle, Managerial Economics: Economic Tools for Today's Decision Makers,
7th edition, Pearson Education, 2013. ISBN-13:
"Physical Activity Performance of Focal Middle School
Students," with Corey M. Gelbaugh. Measurement in Physical Education and
Exercise Science, Vol. 17, 2013, pp. 150-166.
Photos by Carl Socolow '77