First annual Student Challenge held online. Winners announced.

April 6, 2020

On Saturday afternoon, forty-seven UT Austin students competed online in the finals of the first annual George Kozmetsky Memorial Student Challenge, a student team competition requiring students to investigate small or remote Texas cities and come up with creative ideas to increase prosperity and quality of life in those communities.  The event is organized by the IC² Institute and named in honor of the founder of the institute.

Although the competition was originally scheduled to be held in-person on the UT campus, changing the format of the event didn’t slow the teams down.  Students quickly learned how to give seamless and professional team presentations online.  The four-person judging panel joined the Zoom meetings for each team and asked questions of team members pertinent to their recommendations.

To prepare for the competition, students formed into teams of 4 to 5 members in February.  Each team needed to be diverse—representing at least two different UT Austin colleges and including at least two undergraduate students and at least two upper-division or graduate students.  Although the diversity requirement meant students had to reach out to work with students they didn’t know, most students felt their teams were stronger for it.

The teams had over a month to get to know a particular Texas community, but they were given only a day and a half to prepare a recommendation and presentation on a surprise situation for their town.

Art Markman, Executive Director of the IC² Institute, commented, “The students did an incredibly sophisticated job of analyzing their communities and providing suggestions based on the scenario they were given. Their answers to the questions posed by the judges demonstrated the depth of knowledge they developed.”

“This competition is a great demonstration of the role that our students can play in developing solutions to the very real challenges faced by small communities around the country. We plan to adapt this model in the coming months to help address the economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Student teams who placed first, second, or third in the competition were awarded cash prizes, including $8,000 to be split between the members of the winning team.  Although the monetary award may have been an incentive, the most common reason students gave for wanting to participate was “I want to challenge myself and improve my skills.”  The cash awards were made possible by a generous gift from Jordan and Laila Scott.

Teams were allowed to choose the Texas community they wanted to study—as long as the community was under 150,000 in population and outside of Texas’ major urban corridors.  The teams that made it to the finals represented cities as small as Menard (pop. < 1,500) and as large as Midland (pop. > 100,000).  The other cities investigated by finalists were La Grange, Tyler, Longview, Harlingen, Edinburg, Slaton, and Glen Rose.

First place was awarded to the team that focused on Harlingen.  Second place went to the Menard team, and, because the judges weren’t able to narrow down the top teams to only three, two teams tied for third place—Team Tyler and Team La Grange.

One of the competition judges, Kasey Coker, Executive Director of The High Ground of Texas, noted that “the students did a fantastic job.  Even the ones that were not awarded prizes had excellent presentation skills and handled questions professionally.  I was honored to hear their ideas for Texas communities!”

A couple of the teams made trips to their towns to talk directly with residents before social distancing made everything but online and telephone communication impossible.  The Menard team traveled to the town and conducted a S.W.O.T. workshop (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) with residents and town leaders.  Scott Winton, is a Menard team member and a grad student in Community and Regional Planning.  “The people of Menard really love their town,” he said.  “The report generated from the challenge can be a tool for consideration as they plot their future.”

Nicole Domingo, a sophomore in finance, worked with the La Grange team and also made the trip to her community, where her team conducted sixteen interviews.  “Rural towns just used to be a tiny part of my road trip routine, passing them by,” she said.  “But thanks to this challenge, I have seen some of the hidden wonders that rural towns in the state of Texas have to offer. Connecting with the residents in the area, I’ve definitely felt southern hospitality at its finest!”

Aniket Matharasi, a freshman in the McCombs School of Business, was one of the youngest students in the competition and emphasized the benefit of the experience:  “Learning more about Tyler, Texas, and how urban planning can change a community economically, socially, and culturally opened my eyes to the importance of tackling challenges like this one as college students, so that we can face similar issues in the real world more effectively in the future.”

The competition was judged by four experts in community development: Coker; Jordan Scott, a community advocate and investor from Austin; Felipe Gonzalez, Principal Technologist for H-E-B; and Rick Rhodes, who serves as the Rural Engagement Coordinator for the Texas Rural Funders Collaborative.  Rhodes commented that “the students exhibited a thorough understanding of challenges facing rural communities.  It is extremely helpful for rural community leaders to receive input from third party observers, and the students’ work will be a great help to those communities.”

“I was happy to participate in the Challenge,” Scott noted.  “We had the chance to see ten presentations from cross-disciplined groups of students looking to lift up rural Texas with proposed initiatives for rural entrepreneurship and economic development.  Their ideas were varied and creative, shining a light on new ways Texas’ long rural tradition can grow and flourish.”

Gonzalez added, “We are proud to support IC²’s effort in bringing awareness to our diverse Texas communities through our shared commitment to technology and education.”

The teams were deliberately put in a stressful situation–having to come up with a recommendation and presentation in just 40 hours–but also seemed to enjoy the challenge. Iann Karamali, a member of the winning team said, “As an undergraduate participating in this challenge, I learned a substantial amount about economic development and its impact on a macro and micro scale. I did not know any of my teammates before starting this competition, but it was really fun and educational working with them, and I hope we stay friends!”

His teammate, Joshua Klein, graduate student at LBJ School of Public Affairs, added, “I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Student Challenge. The competition was a great way to learn more about the incredible community of Harlingen through a combination of data analysis and community engagement.”

Alexandra Byrnes summed up her experience by saying, “My team was both dedicated and wonderful to be around.  I couldn’t have had a better time with this challenge!”


Click on the community names below to watch the video recordings of the team presentations.


List of 2020 IC² Institute Student Challenge finalists

Winners of the George Kozmetsky Memorial Student Challenge Prize

  • First prize winners: Jonathan Du, Matthew Piotrowicz, Iann Karamali, Joshua Klein, and Thomas Adkins (Harlingen team).
  • Second prize winners: Heath Edwards, Kaitlyn Harris, Kathryn Johansen, Scott Winton, and Jocelyn Yao (Menard team).
  • Third prize winners: Amy Simpson, Sashank Macharla, Alexandra Byrnes, and Nicole Domingo (La Grange team) and Evan Pan, Shashwat Pandey, Aniket Matharasi, Chris Morphis, and Kisara Dang (Tyler team).

Other finalist teams


Updated April 7, 2020


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April 6, 2020