Elinor “Lin” Ostrom, Nobel Prize Economist

By Lisa C. Herman Ellison

In this lesson, students will experience the tragedy of the commons through a team activity in which they compete for resources.  After a brief teacher-led discussion of the problems of natural resource management and long-held solutions of economists, students are introduced to economist Elinor Ostrom, who developed a third solution (community rulemaking) – and in the process, revolutionized how economists and policymakers address such problems.  Through a jigsaw activity, students will identify financial, educational, and career challenges Ostrom faced due to her gender and explain how she overcame those challenges to become the first female Nobel Prize economist.

Teachers should understand the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a public resource (also called a common) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource. For more see The Britannica definition or this article from Harvard Business School.  

Guiding Question:

How can community rulemaking prevent the overconsumption of resources?


30 minutes

  1. Students will be able to explain the tragedy of the commons and identify three potential solutions.
  2. Students will be able to identify educational and professional challenges faced by women and explain how women can overcome those challenges.

Supporting Questions:

  1. How have incentives led to the tragedy of the commons?
  2. What are three possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons?
  3. How did Lin Ostrom’s third solution change how economists viewed the role of government in addressing the tragedy of the commons?
  4. How did Lin Ostrom overcome financial, educational, and career challenges to become the first female Nobel Prize economist?


  1. Package of Goldfish crackers (enough for 4 per student)
  2. Access to video and internet via class projector or student tablets
  3. Printouts of paragraphs and questions from Nobel Prize biography (1 set for each team of four students)

Primary and Secondary Sources:

  1. Women in Economics:  Elinor Ostrom (Video 5:25, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDEAgmklNyE
  2. Elinor Ostrom Biography, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2009/ostrom/facts/

Warm Up:

  1. Place students in teams of four
  2. Place four Goldfish crackers in the middle of the table, all piled together. 
  3. Tell students there will be two rounds for the activity.
  4.  Round 1: 
    • Tell students they can pick up and eat as many goldfish as they want with no restrictions. But if the students leave any goldfish on the table, you will double the number of goldfish on the table.  No talking! 
    • Give students 15 seconds for the round. Students will generally grab as many goldfish as they can before the other students at their table can grab them.
    1. After the round, if any goldfish are left on the tables, double their numbers.
  5. Round 2:
    •  Tell students the same rules apply, but this time, you will give them 15 seconds to discuss how to handle the situation. 
    • After 15 seconds of discussion, give students 15 seconds for the round.  Generally, the students will encourage each other to leave the goldfish on the table so that they can get twice as many after the round.  This will require trusting the other students on the team.  Some teams will succeed; others will not. 
    • After the round, if any goldfish are left on the tables, double their numbers.
  6. Discuss with the class:
    • When limited resources were available to everyone without any rules, what was your incentive?  To get as many as possible before anyone else could.
    • When your team could discuss how to double your resources, what did you decide to do?  Agreed to leave the resources on the table so that everyone could have more.


  1. Discuss the tragedy of the commons:  If all fishers can harvest as many fish as possible without restrictions, they have no incentive to preserve the ecosystem. If there are no rules or private property rights, they will exploit the system and the fisheries will collapse. Economists concluded that if private property rights could be imposed, or the government could impose rules like fishing limits, minimum sizes, or excluding female fishes, the fisheries could be sustained in the long run.
  2. Introduce Dr. Elinor Ostrom, a woman who studied the tragedy of the commons from the perspective of the people actually using the resources.  A woman?  In economics?  Yes, and her groundbreaking work in this area of study earned her the first Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences ever awarded to a woman.
  3. Show Women in Economics:  Elinor Ostrom  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDEAgmklNyE (5:25).
  4. Discuss how Ostrom’s conclusions differed from the “accepted” policy conclusions of the time.  Her studies showed that when people in small communities jointly use natural resources, if people trust each other, they can develop their own rules for sustainability.  A top-down solution from a national or state government may not be necessary.
  5. Explain that Ostrom’s fight against established expectations was nothing new for her.  She spent the majority of her life forging her way in society at a time when women’s rights and opportunities were limited.
  6. Jigsaw:  Distribute the four paragraphs/questions from Ostrom’s biography to each team.  Have each student read one paragraph and discuss his/her answer with the rest of the team:

Paragraph 1: “While it was a challenge being a poor kid in a rich kid’s school, it did give me a different perspective on the future. Since 90 percent of the students in Beverly Hills High School went to college, it appeared going to college was the “normal” thing to do after high school. Even though no one in my immediate family had any college experience, I decided that I should go on to college. My mother saw no reason to support me during my college years since she had been supported only through high school. Fortunately, the semester fees at UCLA at that time were extremely low. I worked in the library, at a dime store, and at the bookstore. I was able to complete my undergraduate degree without going into debt. I took courses across the social sciences and graduated after three years by attending multiple summer sessions and by taking extra courses throughout. In my last year as an undergraduate, I graded Freshmen Economics.” 

Paragraph 1 Questions:

  1. How did Lin overcome her lack of family and financial support for college?  She worked at several jobs and took overloads and summer classes to finish college early.
  2. How did college expectations for girls in the early 1900s differ from expectations today?  Society and families hold more expectations for girls to go to college and hold careers that require a college education than they did a century ago

Paragraph 2: “When I started to look for a position after graduation, it was somewhat of a shock to me to have future employers immediately ask whether I had typing and shorthand skills. The presumption in those days was that the appropriate job for a woman was as a secretary or as a teacher in a grade school or high school. I began a correspondence course on shorthand, which I have never used to take dictation, but have found to be very useful when taking notes in face-to-face interviews on research projects. Fortunately, after a year of working as an Export Clerk in a large clerical pool, I did obtain a position as Assistant Personnel Manager for a business firm that had never hired a woman in anything but a secretarial position. I think my experience of obtaining a very good job in my early twenties helped me later when I decided to think about attending graduate-level courses and eventually applying for a research assistantship and admission to a Ph.D. program. I learned not to take initial rejections as being permanent obstacles to moving ahead.” 

Paragraph 2 Questions:

  1. How did Lin overcome employer expectations for “women’s work” after college?  She took a correspondence course to obtain a “woman’s job” and then worked her way up, refusing to accept initial rejection. 
  2. How would you deal with a potential employer who told you that “girls don’t do this kind of work?”  At the least, an explanation that if the woman is capable of doing the work, she shouldn’t face discrimination.  Potentially, the student could file an anti-discrimination lawsuit.

Paragraph 3: “My initial discussions with the Economics Department at UCLA about obtaining a Ph.D. in Economics were, however, pretty discouraging. I had not taken mathematics as an undergraduate primarily because I had been advised as a girl against taking any courses beyond algebra and geometry in high school. While the Economics Department encouraged me to take an outside minor in economics for my Ph.D., they discouraged any further thinking about doing a Ph.D. in economics. Political Science at that time was also skeptical about admitting any women to their Ph.D. program as they feared that only a city college would employ a woman with a Ph.D. That was not a good placement for building the reputation of the UCLA department. I was, however, admitted in a class of 40 students with three other women. We were told after we began our program that the faculty had a very heated meeting in which they criticized the Departmental Committee for admitting any women and offering them assistantships. Fortunately, our fellow male graduate students were friendly and encouraged us all to continue in our program.” 

Paragraph 3 Questions:

  1. How did Lin overcome UCLA’s decision to reject her application to study for a PhD in Economics?  She applied and was accepted into UCLA’s program for a PhD in Political Science. 
  2. Do high schools today discourage girls from taking any math courses beyond algebra and geometry?  Why or why not?  Most high schools actually require at least three years of math and recommend four.  This is because policymakers now recognize that girls are just as capable as boys in understanding higher math, and this level of mathematical understanding is necessary for entrance to most colleges.

Paragraph 4: “It was only after I defended my dissertation in 1965 that Garrett Hardin’s article on “The Tragedy of the Commons” was published in Science, and Mancur Olson’s book on The Logic of Collective Action was published. And, in 1965, Vincent was offered an attractive position as full professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. I tagged along as it was very hard for any department to hire a woman in those days. Fortunately, the Department of Political Science later needed someone to teach Introduction to American Government on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. They appointed me as a Visiting Assistant Professor to do that. After a year of teaching freshmen, they asked me if I would be Graduate Advisor and moved me to a regular appointment at that point.” 

Paragraph 4 Questions:

  1. How did Lin overcome the problem of being hired as a female Political Science professor?  She applied at the same university where her husband taught and accepted early morning teaching times until she moved up to a permanent position. 
  2. Can you think of an example of a couple with the opposite situation – where the woman found a great job and her partner followed her?  What would motivate the partner to make that move?  Answers vary, including that the woman had a rarer skill, the woman earned more income, or the partner had a more flexible career.
Assessment / Homework

Summary and Informed Action:

Economists had widely accepted two solutions to the tragedy of the commons. How did Elinor Ostrom use what she learned about overcoming challenges to promote her third solution?  She used evidence from her studies and pushed through even when she didn’t find easy acceptance. Because of her persistence, she changed the way economists and policymakers address the problems of resource management today. 

Exit Question:

How can you use self-management to solve problems in your neighborhood or community?

Future Research / Resources


  • Students can work individually to read the biography from the website and answer the questions themselves.
  • Students can use a think-pair-share for more individualized attention.

D2.Eco.1.6-8. Explain how economic decisions affect the well-being of individuals, businesses, and society.

D2.Eco.2.6-8. Evaluate alternative approaches or solutions to current economic issues in terms of benefits and costs for different groups and society as a whole.

D2.Eco.1.9-12. Analyze how incentives influence choices that may result in policies with a range of costs and benefits for different groups.