On Saturday afternoon, UT Austin kicked off its first-ever interscholastic student team competition focused on issues facing small and remote communities. Dubbed “March Economic Madness,” the competition involves teams of students from both UT Austin and UT Permian Basin who prepare and deliver presentations on proposed solutions to address the unique needs of assigned Texas cities.
The idea for the competition, organized by UT Austin’s IC² Institute, grew from both student enthusiasm for previous IC² student “challenges” and from an aim of the institute to reach across the state to include diverse perspectives on community issues and economic development. IC², founded in 1977, is a research department that investigates issues facing communities outside of major urban areas.
Evan Pan, one of the UT Austin students who participated Saturday, remarked, “I think it’s really important for institutions like universities to look into remote or small communities because these communities are often overlooked in favor of urban communities. They might not get the same resources or attention that a larger community receives.”
Forty-four students, grouped into small teams, presented on Saturday. To be a part of March Economic Madness, each student team must include students who represent more than one academic field, ensuring that teams have a multi-disciplinary perspective. Teams who sign up are assigned a small Texas city to study and are encouraged to really get to know their assigned communities through interviews with community leaders and citizens. Then, one week before presentation day, the teams are given a surprise question about an issue impacting their community and must come up with a proposal that makes sense for that community.
“Our student competitions like March Economic Madness give our students an opportunity to do their own research to answer novel real-world questions,” said Art Markman, Executive Director of the IC² Institute. “The student teams in this year’s competition did an impressive job of getting to know their communities, identifying key problems, and providing innovative solutions to these issues.”
Luis Martins, a UT Austin professor of management and director of the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, was part of the judging panel reviewing UT Austin student presentations. “Economic development is powered by great ideas,” Martins said. “The students’ ability to grapple with the tough challenges of economic development and identify problems and solutions was outstanding.”
The top teams from Saturday’s event will go on to compete in the final round on March 27, with a new problem to address, and with a single winning team awarded $25,000. Four student teams were selected to go forward.
The finalist teams have more work ahead of them, but are excited to continue in the competition. Krystal Smith, one of the finalist students from UTPB noted the unique opportunity the competition provided for collaborative work among students, even during the pandemic. “I really loved bonding with my teammates by working towards a common goal that was not on a tennis court,” the student athlete noted.
Due to current social distancing, all teams presented via an online platform. Each team was given 10 minutes to deliver a formal presentation, followed by 10 minutes of questions and answers with a judging panel. Three UT Austin professors made up the panel reviewing UT Austin presentations, and three UTPB professors reviewed the UTPB student presentations. However for the final round of the competition, the judging panel will consist of experts associated with neither university.
The March Economic Madness Round 1 question was about workforce development issues in the assigned cities. According to IC² Deputy Executive Director Greg Pogue, “Workforce availability and sustainability are key questions in the corporate where-to-grow consideration. With this in mind, workforce development must be a systemic activity in small cities for these communities to be competitive today.” Student teams addressed workforce issues for ten different small Texas cities: Big Spring, Cibolo, Copperas Cove, Eagle Pass, Kerrville, Lufkin, Nacogdoches, San Juan City, Texarkana, and Weatherford.
Overall, the students’ ideas so far have sparked a lot of interest, and many teams will share their presentations with leaders in their assigned communities.
“I am always encouraged when I listen to our students solving problems—how they are not afraid to put themselves out there and come up with creative approaches. They give me hope for the future,” said UT Professor Doreen Lorenzo.
Her fellow judge, UT Professor John Traphagan, echoed her remarks: “I was impressed with the quality of thinking and the work that went into all of the presentations. That work says a great deal about this generation of college students and their ability to think about social problems.”
Teams were informed Saturday afternoon via a Zoom meeting if they had been accepted for the next round of the competition. After congratulating UT Austin’s finalist teams, Markman concluded the announcements, by saying, “Get ready, because the finals are coming!”
Teams studying issues impacting Big Spring, Lufkin, San Juan City, and Weatherford qualifed for Round 2 of March Economic Madness. Links to the Round 1 presentations of finalist teams are provided below.
Thoughts from March Economic Madness Finalist Team Members
“Through speaking with members and residents of the city I quickly realized how large of a drive there is in Big Spring to always be the best community possible for their residents. Before researching, I’d never met a more dedicated community and I’m excited to continue expanding my knowledge of Big Spring and other communities in Texas!”
-Radhika Patel, UT Austin economics major
I really liked the collaboration aspect of the challenge. Since there is no clear cut solution to the problems facing our community, it was through collaboration and everyone doing their own research and sharing ideas that we were able to create a development plan that wouldn’t have been possible had we been working alone.
-Mateo Ortego, UT Austin engineering major
“I think it’s important for university students to study small remote towns because they are a vital segment of the population that is often left behind. We often like to tackle problems for a big city because we live in one; yet if we look outside our bubble, we’ll see a vast amount of small towns with interesting and unique problems that are just forgotten about by most Americans.”
-Andrew Nolte, UT Austin computer science major
“What I have enjoyed most is the challenge of confronting an initially daunting task, but then seeing the optimism grow and the energy shift as our research started compounding and solutions were being created. I believe that it is important for universities to look into issues facing remote communities, because we can afford to do this. I am privileged to attend a university as resourceful as UT, and I have the luxury of being able to think about issues bigger than myself while some communities don’t have the same luxury.”
-Vincent Duong, UT Austin economics major
Link to the Big Spring Team’s Round 1 Presentation
“I believe it’s really important for universities and students to look into issues facing small communities because as I’ve learned about my assigned community, Lufkin, these communities are commonly underestimated, but they have plenty of unique strengths and resources that could be leveraged to reach a higher potential and impact larger communities.”
-Rachel Wong, UT Austin management information systems major
“One thing I heard across the board was just how much people enjoy living in Lufkin and want to stay there. Even if they leave to go to college, they want to come back. When the town experienced economic difficulties, people stuck around and did what they had to do to make ends meet until things got better.”
-Hana Bredstein, UT Austin international relations and global studies major
“I have enjoyed working with my team and seeing everyone bring their own talents and insights to the table. I have not had many opportunities to collaborate on group projects during college, so this has been a valuable learning experience for me.”
-Julia Ho, UT Austin engineering major
“It is not often that I am given the opportunity to problem solve real world issues with other students. Academia mostly challenges us with content that is removed from the contemporary real world, and this student challenge put me and my peers in front of a real community facing today’s issues, and asked us to come up with a solution. I’m proud of my team for putting together a pitch without the close guidance of advisors or teachers.”
-Claire Keegan, UT Austin College of Fine Arts design major
Link to the Lufkin Team’s Round 1 Presentation
“It is important for academia to better understand these issues for a multitude of reasons. First, they paint the bigger picture of Texas at large: small communities are intrinsic to Texas’ identity. Second, they allow us to understand economic and social issues on a small scale. Small communities are microcosms for Texas at large. By examining attitudes and issues on a community level scale, we can gain insights we would not have otherwise.”
-Kisara Dang, UT Austin triple major in business, sustainability studies, and geography
“I think the IC² Student Challenge is one of the first of its kind nationwide. It provides university students a unique opportunity to apply the skills they’re learning at the UT to solve real problems in real communities. As a student who moved from East Texas to Austin for college, I know firsthand the importance of rural and small communities. I think it’s important that we include geographic diversity in the conversation about diversity because more often than not, students from remote communities do not have access to the same resources or opportunities as those coming from an urban core.”
-Evan Pan, UT Austin business and government major
“My favorite part about participating in the competition is digging into some of the overlooked problems in small cities all around us. Working with a team to figure out a truly impactful solution is an extremely gratifying experience.”
-Aniket Matharasi, UT Austin business and humanities major
Link to the San Juan City Team’s Round 1 Presentation
“Small communities are the backbone of our economy, so it is important for students to recognize their significance and find new and creative ways to solve the issues that remote communities have.
I learned that Weatherford is a city that is continuing to grow, at only half capacity. I found this surprising and it was interesting to research and brainstorm ways to encourage that growth.”
– Krystal Smith, UTPB engineering major
“Participating in this competition was a huge challenge for me. As a student in Kinesiology, I had to get out of my comfort zone and worked really hard with my teammates to be successful in this project. This program was also eye-opening concerning the importance of rural communities and about which factors to consider for their development in the long run.”
-Lisa Guitton, UTPB College of Health Sciences and Human Performance
“Many students come from places like this one, and I feel they all want to improve their hometown to become the best. Our small cities are important providers of resources for the whole state, and addressing issues they face is good for the whole country.”
-Enrique Sanchez Fernandez, UTPB College of Arts and Sciences
“What I enjoyed most about taking part in this competition is that my teammates and I combined every one of our own abilities to achieve success. We all had a similar mindset and were willing to help each other whenever it was required.”
-Monika Cantu, UTPB College of Arts and Sciences
Link to the Weatherford Team’s Round 1 Presentation
5 More Presentations Qualified for Round 1
The student team assigned to Copperas Cove conducted a survey of residents and came up with a proposal to fit the needs of this community with a large veteran population, addressing underemployment of a qualified workforce. Link to the Cove presentation.
The Cibolo team emphasized accelerating growth in a community with a diverse workforce and concentrated on the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors that appeared to offer a high return on investment for the city. Link to the Cibolo presentation.
The team working on Eagle Pass noted both the high rate of residential internet access and the high rate of bilingualism, and proposed connecting residents to translation opportunities, particularly in medical transcription and translation. Link to the Eagle Pass presentation.
The Nacogdoches team created a plan to recruit, support, and retain professionals in education, noting the need to address teacher turnover in Nacogdoches ISD and the importance of Stephen F. Austin University to the community. Link to the Nacogdoches presentation.
The student team assigned to Texarkana, Texas, proposed a child-care assistance initiative and other measures to help connect the available workforce to opportunities. Link to the Texarkana presentation.
Originally published March 8, 2021.