Students Applying Economics Through Campus Place-Based Learning



Place-based learning is a pedagogy where the local community and built environment are used as vehicles for learning. In previous semesters, the author has utilized place-based learning by connecting business and economics students with local businesses. This paper discusses a new application of place- based learning, where the place is the college campus.

In partnership with the Auxiliary Services division on campus, students were tasked with analyzing a campus vending machine in an effort to provide healthier snacks. This task encompassed various aspects of economics such as demand planning, pricing, variable costs, and profitability.

Results are presented in terms of student solutions and feedback from the Auxiliary Services division. Student comments on the project are also discussed. The results show that campus place-based learning has great potential for motivating students and engaging them in producing relevant work.

Place-Based Learning

Place-based learning or place-based education grew out of the environmental movement and sought to use student’s local places as the basis of their learning (Smith, 2002). Its roots go as far back as Dewey, when it was though that the community could serve as the curriculum (Dewey, 2013). Gruenewald (2002) wrote a seminal article on establishing a critical pedagogy of place. Place-based learning has then been extended to reflect the connection between local places and the global system (Gruenewald & Smith, 2014). Place-based learning has been historically strong in rural areas, but is now common in all types of environments (McInerney, Smyth, & Down, 2011).

The Student Task

The Auxiliary Services division on campus partners with a local vending company to provide snacks via the vending machine on campus. This is a part of a long-term contract between the University and the vending company. Therefore, this constraint was in place for the semester and to some degree limited the pool of solutions. Students could not suggest solutions that were beyond the vending company’s current ability.

While this constraint might seem like it would lessen the potential for innovative solution, this setup went along with the general theme of the class. Many of the problems discussed in class are within the framework of constrained optimization. Sample problems would be producing the most output given a budget constraint, or optimizing a limited amount of product between two markets. The constraint of working within the vending company’s boundaries simply provided a different type of constraint for students to work with.

The objective for the student task was to nominate new healthier items to be incorporated into the vending machine. However, this was to be done in a way that kept the vending machine profitable for the company. Therefore, the students had to balance the two objectives in mind. In practice, this was defined as switching out a small number (3 to 5) of low-selling unhealthy items for potentially profitable healthier items. Thus the majority of the vending machine stayed the same, ensuring that the machine would still be profitable for the company.

This idea of changing a small number of vending items also fit in with another key theme in the class: marginal analysis. Managers may not have the ability to make wholesale changes to business. Instead, they may experiment with small changes to see how this affects business objectives. This theme of marginal analysis was prevalent throughout the class, and the project fit in well along these lines.

Data was obtained from Auxiliary Services to provide two weeks of sale data for the vending machine in the College of Business building. This data showed total sales for each item, and also detailed the item price. Given this, students could calculate the total revenue produced by the machine.

The cost information for the various items was not provided by the vending machine company. Therefore, total profit could not be calculated. In practice, it turned out that a handful of items generated virtually no sales. Removing these items and replacing them with healthy items that had any sales would then increase the total profit of the machine (assuming the healthy items were priced above cost). In this way, the project was able to circumvent the lack of data on item costs.

Given the task, the first step for students was to determine demand for healthy vending products. This was done via surveys that the student groups designed. This was a class topic that had been previously discussed. Students surveyed other University students in regards to their preferences for healthier items. Some groups did this with close-ended questions, “Which of the items would you be interested in purchasing?” while some groups included open-ended questions “What healthier items would you want to see in the vending machine?”

Once the new items were selected, the demand for these items was forecasted. Some groups did this by leveraging the survey data. Other groups forecasted based upon the lower price point of the new items.

With expected demand and pricing of the new items estimated, the groups could then calculate the potential profitability from the switch. As most groups chose to remove items with low or no sales, there was little downside to the predictions. As long as the new, healthier items had virtually any sales, this would increase total profitability as well as introduce healthier choices.

Our Results

As this was a real business task, the decision was made to assess this paper in as close a way as a real business would. Previous work by the author resulted in a simple framework that mimics how managers assess proposals in the real world (Metzgar, 2017). This rubric can be filled out fairly quickly while leaving room for open-ended comments. Given the large number of student proposals (100+) that had to be assessed, there was need for a simple and efficient framework for assessing papers.

The student papers were jointly assessed by the author, the manager from Auxiliary Services, and a representative from the vending company. The papers showed the usual distribution of quality that is seen with student submissions. The author could overrule any marks and had the ultimate responsibility to determine the appropriate grade.

The majority of student groups were on target with their analysis. They created proper surveys, estimated demand, and showed the potential profitability of these changes. This was an exciting development to see that students could transfer their learning from class to a realistic business situation.

Three top papers were chosen as exemplars and uploaded to the class website. One of these papers actually calculated the expected price elasticity of demand for the new items. All of these top papers went above and beyond to produce very realistic and valuable results for the project.

There were a number of positive student comments on the project. A student remarked that the project “was a chance to apply the class knowledge to a real-world situation”. A student noted that “in this class, you actually got to do something real”. Another student wrote that “this was a great opportunity to work with a business partner and offer a solution.” As a whole, students felt the project was a very valuable component of the class.

Both Auxiliary Services and the vending company were very pleased with the student submissions. The vending company noted that they learned a great deal about student demand and preferences for snack food. Auxiliary Services was excited to help match these student preferences with new choices in the vending machine. Auxiliary Services and the vending machine company are working together to choose which new, healthier items will be introduced to the vending machine.


This project was an example of implementing place-based learning onto a college campus. Students were able to work on a real business task that involved campus administration and a business partner. Students generated solutions that were both profitable and healthier in terms of food quality.

The ultimate goal for college students is to eventually be able to fully contribute to the local community. By offering experiences such as place-based learning, students are able to begin contributing while still enrolled in college. These types of experiences can be beneficial for all parties: students, campus, and the campus’s business partners. This iteration of place-based learning was highly successful and contributed benefits to our campus, making it a stronger and healthier organization.


Blakely, B. J. (2012). Pausing in the whirlwind: A campus place-based curriculum in a multimodal foundation communication course. Journal of Writing Program Administration, 35(2), 11.

Dewey, J. (2013). The school and society and the child and the curriculum. University of Chicago Press.

Gruenewald, D. A. (2003). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational researcher, 32(4), 3–12.

Gruenewald, D. A., & Smith, G. A. (Eds.). (2014). Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity. Routledge.

McInerney, P., Smyth, J., & Down, B. (2011). ‘Coming to a place near you?’The politics and possibilities of a critical pedagogy of place-based education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), 3–16.

Smith, G. A. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi delta kappan, 83(8), 584- 594.

About the Author Matthew Metzgar has been working in the field of Economics for over 15 years. He earned his undergraduate degree from West Virginia University and his MBA degree from Wheeling Jesuit University. He then earned his PhD in Economics from the University of Tennessee in 1997. He currently teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in economics and decision-making. His published research includes research on sustainability and on the economic implications of various diets.

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