Marilyn Zhang, Asritha Katakam, Ankitha Mallekav and Justin Gong, members of the High School North economics club, placed in the top 10 in the National Economics Challenge in New York City in May.

Justin Gong, Asritha Katakam, Ankitha Mallekav and Marilyn Zhang thought it would be fun to work together in the High School North economics club since they were all sophomores.

What they never expected was that they would to go all the way to top 10 in a national economics competition—the 19th annual National Economics Challenge in the David Ricardo Division for novice economics students.

The club put together teams to compete in the Federal Reserve Bank Challenge, the Euro Challenge, the Wharton School Diamond Challenge, the Future Business Leaders of America Conference, and the NEC.

The students did well this year with a first place in the Fed competition, a second place in the Euro Challenge, a Wharton finalist, and four of the FBLA members qualified for finals in San Antonio.

The club then competed in to the NEC finals in New York from May 18-20, finishing in seventh place.

Students compete in one of two divisions depending on their level of experience. The David Ricardo division is for economics students participating in the NEC for the first time, while the the Adam Smith division is for advanced placement, baccalaureate and honors students.

“Starting off we didn’t feel too confident,” Katakam said. “Something that kept us going was we couldn’t believe we won second place in the Euro Challenge. Ankitha and I were both a part of the NEC team and the Euro team.”

“It was amazing,” Mallekav said. “It was the first time I’ve been in a national competition. It felt so inspiring that I was among really smart people. It motivated me to keep going with the subject and the club.”

That’s music to Morton Levine’s ears. The faculty advisor, who has lived down the street from Maurice Hawk Elementary School for five decades and worked in the textile industry in New York, has been thrilled to see his students’ interest.

“They’re like sponges,” Levine said. “They either become commercial bankers or they become economists. They eat economics up.”

The “dismal science,” as economics was labeled in the 19th century, isn’t so dismal for these students these days. About 40 students are in the club that started in 2007 with the Fed Challenge. They took second place in the first NEC in 2016.

“The first thing that I liked is the people I’m working with and learning different economic concepts,” Katakam said. “The subject of economics is also very interesting and applicable to life, which is what makes it so fun.”

The competitions are a bonus, and while High School North teams have done well, Levine says the bigger goal is having fun and getting students interested in business and economics.

“It definitely benefits them because as soon as they get out of college and get jobs, they’re going to not only represent themselves well, which they do —they dress up for these competitions —but they would be attuned to the fact that they’re going to have to perform for whatever company they work for, and the better they perform, the higher they’ll progress up the ladder,” Levine said.

“They’re all going to have careers, who knows what they’re going to do, but this kind of training gives them great public speaking and analytic skills and it gives them poise,” Levine said. “That’s probably the best thing it gives them.”

Mallekav had been involved before in an economics club, and saw the North club as another fun way to learn about economics and business.

“Initially I did not have interest in economics if I’m being honest,” she said. “I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out how economics works.”

Katakam participated in the Euro Challenge last year, and that gave her a little bit of experience for the NEC, which she describes as more straightforward and basic economics.

“There were some things that I didn’t know too much about that were new to me, but there were also things that were related to macroeconomics specifically that I already knew from Euro Challenge,” Katakam said. “But I did have to re-study a lot of things for the National Economics Challenge.”

The economics club started meeting in January twice per week for two-and-a-half hours in afternoons after school, but increased the frequency of meetings to three and then four and then the entire week, as they put the final preparations on before nationals. Levine doesn’t try to stack the teams, he asks the students to make their own teams.

“They become almost like a family to each other,” Levine said. “They spend a lot of time working together and going over scenarios and hypothetical questions because in the critical thinking, that’s what you’re going to get.”

All NEC teams take an online exam first to determine each state’s top team. The state champions all take another written exam and the top eight teams travel to New York City for the final competition. Mallekav’s team was one of four from WW-P North to take the first test, and they advanced to states and then to nationals.

“After the first exam, we didn’t have a good outlook for our exam scores,” Mallekav said. “We never believed that we’d make it nationals, but after we got to states, and after we realized we’re making it to finals we felt our luck changed a lot. Luck was a big factor.”

There are more than 10,000 teams nationwide when the competition began. WW-P North was thrilled to be in the final eight.

“One of my students (Gong) said to me, ‘Mr. Levine, there’s a lot of smart kids here,’” Levine said. “I said to him, ‘Justin, that’s why you’re here.’”

At nationals, more tests determine a national champion. The first round of the competition is online, and is taken in what Levine called “a cloistered atmosphere.”

There are exams in microeconomics, macroeconomics and international economics. Participants break for lunch then begin a round of critical thinking, where they go into a room with judges who provide a theoretical question and have them resolve it.

They then give them an entrepreneurial question and have teams set up a business and talk about its economics and dynamics.

“The national competition was pretty tough,” Katakam said. “Once we got to the national level and saw teams from China and all over the U.S., it added a lot of pressure. By the time we got to that level, the tests were also kind of difficult as well.”

Said Mallekav: “It was definitely very challenging. It was at a level that you’d expect a national exam to be. We definitely had to be well prepared to compete among students who had taken economics courses, who’d studied and self-studied themselves.”

The students said they students feel well prepared because of their club interaction.

“We sit at a very nice table, and we talk about any problems anyone is having with a subject, we review questions and answers and quiz each other and then, for example, as the competition gets closer, I bring in the Fed team to quiz the NEC team,” Levine said. “Because the Fed team is made up of juniors and seniors, they’re a more advanced team. On the Fed team, four out of the five were on that freshman team that finished second in the nation in the NEC. They’ve already been there. They’ve been through it. They know the questions to ask.”

The experience of the competition, rather than the outcome, is most important. North’s economics club has kept students involved and wanting more.

“I think I’m definitely going to do the National Economics Challenge next year as well and hopefully get good results,” Katakam said. “I hope to maybe do something with economics in college, but also participate in other clubs that are involved with the subject.”

Mallekav said the competition also has sparked his interest in economics. “Even if I don’t go into it as a major, I definitely will pursue it in some way. I learned that economics relates to a lot of different aspects in life and can be applied in real life.”

The quartet is just the latest team from WW-P North to get a successful start in economics, and be able to display exactly how much they have learned during the time spent together in their club.

“I thought it was really cool,” Katakam said. “When I was in the competition, I didn’t really think about how this is a national competition. After I came back home, it was cool to say I was part of a team that placed seventh in the nation.”