Technology, done well, can be an engine for social change and Economic Education is the avenue to achieve it.

For Professor Isabella Dobrescu, Deputy Head, School of Economics at UNSW Business School, one of the most rewarding moments of the Girls in Business (GIB) Camp is the students’ eureka moment when they realise economics gives you the power to make the world a better, happier and more equitable place for all – and it’s not (just) about profit.

“An RBA survey showed that girls and women care first and foremost about saving the world – from hunger, inequality, climate change, bias, lack of access to decent health and education – and this is exactly what economics is about,” Professor Dobrescu explains. “It’s about maximising the wellbeing, the happiness of everyone in a society.”

Professor Dobrescu loves being part of these eureka moments during the GIB Camp because she gets to relive the moment she fell in love with economics during the fourth year of her Banking and Finance degree. Back then, she won an exchange scholarship to the Nottingham Trent University in the UK and decided to mix it up and choose the Economics stream. The subjects opened up a whole new world for Professor Dobrescu, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Her hope for the 2024 Girls in Business camp is that the program does the same for female-identifying students in years 10, 11 and 12 across NSW. Over a three-day intensive program, students will learn about the different disciplines of business and hear from inspiring female role models through interactive workshops, information sessions and industry site visits.

Giving students learning opportunities like these is part of the reason why Professor Dobrescu refers to UNSW as her ‘academic home’. Over the last 15 years at UNSW, she has been doing it all: she has researched education via the STEP UP initiative in Education that she Co-Chairs, practised it by educating over 20,000 students, and more recently designed and implemented the UNSW Business School flagship outreach program – the STEP UP: Playconomics High School Program.

She is also a CEPAR Associate Investigator, and an editor of the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance (JPEF) – saving adequacy in retirement and ensuring decent standards of living in older age being her other research interest. It’s a career Professor Dobrescu wouldn’t change for the world.

“What I love about my career as an academic is the ability to think freely, without boundaries. I get to pick the questions I want to ask and then I get to work on them, testing different methodologies until I get to the answer. It’s an incredibly rewarding process, although somewhat daunting,” she says.

Contributing to a more positive society

Besides Education, Professor Dobrescu’s research interests also include saving dynamics, risk-taking and cognition – things that touch every aspect at every stage of people’s lives.

“People make decisions every minute of their lives, some trivial and some crucial. At UNSW, we’re using complex mathematical models to understand how individuals make these choices, what motivates them, what drives them so we can inform public policy and help develop better, more flexible financial products.”

Professor Dobrescu’s models are so-called ‘lifecycle’ models. They can help simulate thousands of hypothetical individuals across their entire life span – from getting their first job to retiring and beyond, and then show how they would react to various changes in government policies and/or market conditions.

The findings of these experiments informed various major superannuation funds and government organisations, as they improve their product design and create policies to better support Australians today.

“It’s maths and economics at their best, allowing us to test and ensure any changes have the intended impact on people and society,” shares Professor Dobrescu.

Making economics ‘speak the language’ of the next generation

Professor Dobrescu’s simulations-based work is however not confined to her research. By extending the same methodology (simulations) into her teaching, she’s changing how students learn about economic fundamentals – and other business-related subjects.

Teaching more than 2,000 people each year across various faculties in her Economics 1101 course, Professor Dobrescu wanted to make the subject of economics more inclusive, accessible, engaging and fun!

Building on her lifecycle modelling and inspired by Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) video games and the power of learning and community that games foster, Professor Dobrescu and her colleague Professor Alberto Motta developed Playconomics.

Playconomics is an MMO video game that teaches students about economics, and by extension about the world in all its beauty and with all its problems.

“Students get to take control of their economies and resources, deciding in what to specialise, what to trade, how to create public goods like hospitals and schools, whether to travel to space and conquer new universes,” she explains.

“They also get to see what happens if people don’t get enough education, or a good job with a decent wage, or go bankrupt or get old and/or sick, and what happens with inefficient companies that pollute or do not take action to promote equality.”

What started as an exercise in equity and inclusion has become a game-changing learning tool for thousands of students across Australia and internationally.

Playconomics isn’t just a fun MMO video game – it’s a virtual world that’s helping students learn about complex problems better and faster.

“Students love it because they feel it made their course a lot easier. In fact, we made it a lot harder, pushed their understanding further, and at the same time, watched their academic performance go up.

“Now we have students from engineering, economics and statistics all playing in the same world. It’s like Second Life meets Sims, but economically, statistically and engineering-ly accurate.”

Nurturing the next generation of global citizens

Today, Playconomics is also helping introduce students to economics earlier, as a core part of the Girls in Business Camp and through UNSW’s STEP UP: Playconomics High School Outreach Program.

“Students get really into the game and have a lot of fun getting their hands dirty virtually – and then (understanding and) cleaning up all the world’s problems, just like real economists do,” Professor Dobrescu says.

As well as her work with businesses and governments, it’s experiences like the Girls in Business camp that make Professor Dobrescu love her job at UNSW – being able to inspire the new generations to never conform and keep thinking outside the box. 

And Professor Dobrescu gets to work with and have as colleagues the best people in their field – which she says is also what makes UNSW Economics the preferred choice for high school students.

“Leading thinkers and practitioners don’t stick to a script. That’s everybody in the School of Economics. They go above and beyond to research and educate but, more importantly, they will go above and beyond to teach you how to be informed decision-makers no matter the problem.”

And she continues: “Our job is to go beyond preparing students for work. That’s a given. But we must also teach you how to keep an open mind, how to continue to learn and be curious, and ‘build’ yourself up. And that’s exactly what we do at UNSW.”

Want to explore your future in business?

Learn from inspiring leaders like Professor Dobrescu and join the world of Playconomics at the UNSW Girls in Business Camp. The Camp is open to any year 10, 11 or 12 female-identifying high school students in New South Wales who have a genuine interest in studying Banking and Finance, Economics, Information Systems and Technology Management, Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

Learn more about the UNSW Girls in Business Camp

Learn more about Economics at UNSW Business School

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