What does cooking have to do with economics? Dr. Guanlin Gao is glad you asked.
Gao, a professor of economics and director of the Economic Education Center for Excellence at Chaminade, is on a mission to bolster financial literacy, education, and research in Hawaii. That’s why on a recent weekday she was cooking with a group of teens after giving them a budget to plan a menu.
The exercise was part of a hands-on financial literacy workshop for Hawaii high school students—and one of the economic center’s latest educational offerings. EECE also recently welcomed 28 Hawaii State Department of Education teachers to campus from 15 Oahu K-12 schools for an innovative educator training program. The aim: help them incorporate accessible and real-world financial literacy lessons into their curriculum.
“We’re here to help people understand just how important economics is to their everyday lives. Financial literacy education has the power to promote economic empowerment, ultimately strengthening our communities, our families, and the broader local economy,” Gao said.
With the support of community stakeholders and several organizations, Chaminade launched the Economic Education Center for Excellence in 2021 with an ambitious mission: “to advance prosperity and economic justice in Hawaii and the Pacific through integrated economic education, training and research.”
Gao notes that financial literacy in Hawaii is a significant area of need.
Nearly 7 in 10 Hawaii residents are considered “financially unhealthy.” Approximately 59% of Hawaii families report they’re struggling financially. And while 21 states require high school students to complete a personal finance or financial literacy course, Hawaii isn’t one of them.
“We use a train-the-trainer approach at the center,” Gao said. “In other words, our educational approaches, initiatives and projects have exponential power because everyone who comes through our center has the tools and the capacity to pass on what they’ve learned on to others.”
Chaminade President Lynn Babington, PhD, said the university was also the perfect place to house the Economic Education Center for Excellence because of its wealth of academic expertise, strong connections with the community, and institutional mission of public service.
“The center has not been operating for long, but it is already making a positive impact in the community,” Babington said. “Over the last year, we have also learned just how strong the demand for economics education and financial literacy is across the state. We look forward to continuing our expansion of the center’s programming to reach more Hawaii educators and students.”
Gao said the center is focused on:
- providing accessible training programs to K-12 educators and students;
- engaging with community networks to bolster financial literacy discussions;
- undertaking research that explores barriers to economic empowerment;
- and demonstrating measurable outcomes and impacts.
She added that another key focus is offering educational programming on the Neighbor Islands. “We want to reach people statewide with high-quality teacher training and financial literacy tools, and we’ve already started to make connections with Neighbor Island teachers and schools,” Gao said.
Since kicking off in April 2021, the center has already offered hands-on training opportunities for teachers and workshops for students—like the Summer Research Institute seminar where Gao found herself cooking with teens. She said the students got $15 to cook a nutritious meal for a family of four. Along the way, they learned key skills, from budgeting to product affordability and planning.
Also as part of the workshop, the students visited HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union and walked into the vault. The idea was to explore the importance of personal banking and savings, and make financial institutions less mysterious.
Gao said the teacher training seminar is just as hands-on.
Educators round out the workshop by sharing their lesson plans with their colleagues and walking through the exercise together. “Teachers are passionate about sharing these important financial literacy skills with their students,” Gao said, adding reviews of the courses were overwhelmingly positive.
“They want to share what they’ve learned with their fellow teachers and they have strongly recommended the trainings,” Gao said. “The next step is reaching more educators and then building and building on what they’ve learned. The center’s focus is all about scaling up but also about repetition.”
Gao said the center is also interested in working with the Hawaii Department of Education to incorporate financial literacy lessons into the social studies curriculum, and already sees the workshops with educators as core to weaving grade-level appropriate economics education into classrooms.
Speaking of big goals, Gao has no shortage of them.
Within five years, she wants the center’s training opportunities to have reached hundreds of Hawaii teachers—and their thousands of students. She is also seeking new grant funding, pursuing research for publication in journals, and excited about the potential for welcoming affiliate faculty or advisors.
“We know we have work to do when it comes to financial literacy in Hawaii. But we are proud to be making a difference and serving as a hub for economics education,” Gao said. “Financial literacy doesn’t have to be hard and unreachable. In fact, financial literacy should be accessible to everyone.”