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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 08 2014

Math Minions are market masters: Oak Grove sixth-graders' stock picks beat teams at top US universities

FARGO – Oak Grove Lutheran School has some sixth-grade minions worth investing in.

Math teacher Dave Carlson’s “Math Minions” posted 21.6 percent gains in a stock market challenge run by online brokerage Motif Investing. They were pitted against classmates in the “Chunky Chubs,” whose gains topped 18 percent.

What neither group of Grovers knew was that the Minions had powered past the gains of 10 teams from top universities competing for $5,000 in their own stock market challenge.

McIntire Investment Institute led the universities – which included Yale, Cal-Berkeley, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia and Cornell – with an 18.5 percent return over four months.

Meanwhile, the Standard and Poor’s 500 index had gone up 10.2 percent.

“We didn’t know 20 percent was so good,” Carlson said Tuesday.

The secret to the Minions’ market magic?

“Just think like a kid,” said student Ryan Nelson.

Or, more importantly, think like a kid looking for the most popular items before Christmas.

The Minions and Chubs filled market baskets, or “motifs,” with their favorite brands.

The Grovers’ game period was from mid-September to the end of February, while the universities began their four-month competition in November.

The Minion’s motif includes Under Armour, Nike, Google, Facebook, Priceline, Toyota, Stratus Properties, Graham Holdings (Washington Post, Cable One), Verizon, Amazon, Starbucks, Best Buy and Netflix.

Each student picked a stock, and changes were few, Carlson said. When the middle-schoolers made a move, it was for a reason.

Joshua Olgard originally picked Panera Bread, but in November switched to Priceline as the travel season heated up.

Nelson started with Yahoo stock, and then switched to Activision, counting on new video games to rake in holiday dollars.

Patience was key to topping the market, student Ian McKay said.

“They’re (university students) spending all their time” buying and selling “and we’re checking every other week,” McKay said.

Carlson said he was approached last fall by Ross Almlie, the CEO and founder of Fargo-based BreadVault, which makes an app to help teach market literacy.

Almlie got Carlson in touch with California-based Motif.

Carlson took the game on as a good learning experience for his students, exposing them to market economics and the investment world while mixing math into the equation.

Each class was staked to $1,000 in “play” money, Carlson said.

“Kids love the competition part of it,” he said.

No one knew how well the sixth-graders did until February, when Almlie called to say the Math Minions were market masters.

Now Carlson is trying to think of what his classes can do next year, calling this year’s test-run a good learning experience.

“I think they really learned some valuable lessons,” Carlson said. “When they’re 12 years old and learning this … a lot of adults don’t have this.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583