“I like impacting how younger generations view the world and like them to view unknown topics optimistically as digestible environments. I also like the performance component of the lecture. It really forces you to be in the present.” – Nick Mastronardi, USA

Nick Mastronardi initially saw teaching as a means to an end: a post-graduate education subsidized by his employer, the U.S. Air Force. But in the process of repaying that support by teaching at the U.S. Airforce Academy, Mastronardi found a lot to like about the profession. He regularly gets great reviews from students, citing the accessibility, simplicity and power of his course information management strategy. 

Mastronardi makes innovative use of game theory as a way to teach students economics, and has, along with a fellow researcher, completely solved one of the oldest games in game theory, Colonel Blotto. Their paper has recently been accepted by a top game theory journal, and Mastronardi continues to find new ways to use game theory to connect with students, utilizing a Microsoft OneNote notebook to host all of the practice exercises, solutions, visuals and lesson plans. 

He is also inspired by the flipped-classroom approach. “I prefer a half flipped class where I do a partial lecture in class but then give students an in-class exercise for the rest of class that I can monitor their progress in applying the tools presented,” Mastronardi tells us. “I think allowing the students to watch lectures at their personal speed, stop and take notes and try mini-exercises is really powerful.” 

Outside the classroom, Mastronardi serves as one of 10 senior economists on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the White House. And while that’s a critical job, Mastronardi remains committed to advancing his teaching practice and ensuring that his students master economics. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure, a look at this innovative educator and influential economist. 

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you? 

The best opportunity for grad school was to be sponsored by the Air Force Academy to go to graduate school with a payback assignment teaching at the Academy.  I originally was not enthusiastic about the teaching part, but have since really been drawn to it.  I like impacting how younger generations view the world and like them to view unknown topics optimistically as digestible environments.  I also like the performance component of the lecture.  It really forces you to be in the present.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

My most influential teacher was my high school calculus teacher Mr. Dennis Hembree.  His style was very unique and probably not the best for everyone, but I loved it.  He would ask us what we wanted to learn about, turn our question into a math problem that represented the topic, work with us to try to solve it until we got stuck, let us chew on it for a while, and real time research the topic on the Internet while extending his computer to the class monitor, and then he always solved it.  It was awesome, true real-time participatory research learning.  You have to be really intelligent to teach that way, and it probably wouldn’t work for every discipline.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

One of my professional achievements, completely solving the Colonel Blotto game from game theory with my co-author Scott MacDonell, has allowed me to gain a real intuitive understanding of the game, which has allowed me to teach it in such a fashion that makes sense and opens the door for students to launch into more complicated extensions.  I am able to teach the solution to the game by having the students play an instructive series of games. 

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I have applied technology in the classroom by having students play games on Rubinstein’s game theory website with real time results. I also have finance students use StockTrak simulation. I have built my own real-time real-data immersive experiential political participation website for use in political science classrooms and have organized all my class materials in OneNote which helps me offer an optimized partially flipped classroom experience.

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work? 

This technology has allowed use of simulation websites and class material organization with OneNote. On the other hand, it lets less committed students get distracted. It also changes the material I teach from less [information they can find using search], to more deductive approaches and to more question-asking.           

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

The fact that some employers accept Coursera and Udacity certifications.  This will be a real game changer.  No longer will students need to take a certain number of credit hours, they will only need to demonstrate particular skills.  In the long run, I think this will lead to more education. 

In addition, besides intelligently organizing and sharing digitally hosted course materials on OneNote, the best opportunity for technology in the classroom is helping “flip” or “invert” the classroom.  I know some faculty who have totally flipped their classes. The students’ homework is to watch the lecture the night before.  Then in class they work on problems with professor assistance.  Also, if a student doesn’t like one teacher’s lecture style, they could watch another lecturer’s version. 

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

I think the skill of doing proper data analytics is well documented, but the subsequent skill of game theory will also be extremely important.  Once firms and institutions have characterized the returns to marketing and other investments, then they will need to behave strategically — which requires game theory.  The same will go for governments as they face tax competition trying to draw in different employers and individuals to be their constituents.

What advice would you give to other teachers?

To help students learn, you have to earn their trust.  Learning requires acquiring a new view which is very disconcerting/destabilizing, and the first step requires admitting you don’t know something, so to help students in the journey of opening their minds and starting a fire inside requires first earning their trust. The best way to do that is to really know the material.  Also, presenting the material in a simple clear narrative is important.  With these things together, I feel can get the professor 90 percent of the way there. 

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Access to Wikipedia, to readily answer questions as they arise.  I was lucky to have an encyclopedia in my house I very often referenced and think this immediate satisfaction made learning much less daunting.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

At the Air Force Academy we are lucky to be able to force all students to have tablets and thus can justifiably recommend faculty to embrace technology that capitalizes on this.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

I think for long-term success in education at the pre-college level, we need more competition, and I think vouchers are the best option for this. 

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Teaching upper-level majors courses and electives, I see a lot of students who think that this is just another check the box course for a degree, where this is where they should really start to chart their course. For example, they should now be reading on topics in the field in their own time, and reading some basic academic literature, taking the topics and trying to extend them on their own.  It’s tough, though, to explain this change in mindset from what they had to learn from external motivation to what they should start pursuing on internal motivation.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

To overcome this challenge of convincing students to be internally motivated on the topic, teachers need to have evident passion and enthusiasm for their subject.

How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?

Not as well as I should have in most of my courses. The only thing I have done is for my political participation website for political and American government classrooms, I made it mobile device (web app) enabled so students can participate via an e-ballot anywhere, anytime they have their phone but may not have their computer. 

About Nick Mastronardi, Assistant Professor of Economics and Captain, U.S. Airforce

Colorado, USA

@mastro

  • Birthplace:  Atlanta, Georgia
  • Current residence:  Palmer Lake, Colorado
  • Education:  BS Honors Math & Physics, University of Notre Dame; PhD Economics, University of Texas, Austin
  • Website I check every day:  Bitcoin
  • Person who inspires me most:  Hal Varian
  • Favorite childhood memory:  Going to the beach with family.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Croatia or Scotland
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? My 7-month-old pulling Santa’s beard yesterday.
  • Favorite book:  Candide by Voltaire
  • Favorite music:  Zydeco
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  “You might like Economics for grad school,” from my dad, since it is a good blend of quantitative analysis and social impact.
  • Your favorite quote or motto:  “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Interested in Games-based Learning?

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