On Saturday, the finals of March Economic Madness, UT’s inter-scholastic team competition, were held. Four student teams from UT Austin and UT Permian Basin presented their proposals to address problems of small or remote communities, and one team was named this year’s grand-prize winner, with an award of $25,000. The announcement was made at an online Zoom meeting, pictured above.
“The students worked incredibly hard, and we got to watch four amazing presentations,” said Art Markman, executive director of the IC² Institute. The IC² Institute, a research department at The University of Texas at Austin, created the unique competition that matches small cities in Texas with student teams who undertake weeks of research and problem-solving.
For Saturday’s second round of competition, the four finalist teams were asked to come up with ideas to help their assigned communities deal with weather emergencies, such as the winter storms Texans experienced this February. Their assignment was to identify community vulnerabilities and economic impacts during the storm and come up with a specific proposal for how the community could address one of the critical vulnerabilities so that the community is more resilient in the future.
The winning team was composed of five students from UT Austin. Their assigned community was Lufkin, a small city in east Texas.
March Economic Madness requires that student teams are inter-disciplinary, representing at least two different colleges or majors. The Lufkin team included students in engineering, fine arts, liberal arts, and business. Remarked student team member Hana Bredstein, “I didn’t know most of my team members at the beginning. I thought we did a really great job working together, and we all brought something different to the table.”
Her teammates echoed that sentiment and also noted that the experience was a great opportunity to learn and implement research methodologies. “It’s not often as an undergrad that you are tasked with such real world problems and given the agency and independence to pursue them, so I’m really grateful for the learning experience,” said Claire Keegan, a design major in the College of Fine Arts.
The team’s advice for the city of Lufkin involved the need for preparation for future storms as inclement weather events become more severe. Their “Lufkin Emergency Action Plan” (LEAP) included steps toward weatherization, education of community members and the use of community centers as resource hubs and shelters.
The three other finalist teams represented Weatherford in the north of Texas, Big Spring in the west, and San Juan City in the Rio Grande Valley. According to the competition judges, “It was a very close call,” and all of the four finalist teams are “winners.” Links to all four team presentations are available below. (Click on the image for each team presentation.)
Kisara Dang, member of the San Juan team, noted that it was especially “rewarding to be able to work with my team to better understand San Juan and the greater community it is a part of as well as address the challenges of the most vulnerable within the city.”
Other participants also commented on the program’s focus on smaller communities not often studied. “I’m really grateful for this experience since I got to learn a lot about not only what small communities have to offer and their opportunities, but also about devising creative yet sustainable solutions for them. I hope other students take advantage of this unique opportunity in the future and realize the importance of studying commonly overlooked communities,” remarked Rachel Wong.
Because the winning team is from The University of Texas at Austin, the office of the Vice President for Research for UT Austin will have the honor of displaying the March Economic Madness trophy for the next year. In March of 2022, the IC² Institute expects that several universities will be joining the competition and vying for the trophy.
The IC² Institute used an external panel of judges for the final round of the competition. Judges Marilu Hastings, Britta Klucznik, and Mike Mauldin all had complementary expertise in areas related to community economic development, but none of the judges were associated with either UT Austin or UT Permian Basin.
“Each one of the presentations was real-life, could make a difference, and demonstrated that the students put thought into the proposals.”Mike Mauldin, Director, Excellence in Banking, Texas Tech University
“All four teams had very well-thought out proposals. We could envision each one being implemented. The teams all had a deep level of understanding of the communities.”Britta Kluznick, Senior Vice President, Middle Market Banking, Truist Financial Corporation
“Texas will face more and more challenges from population growth, aging infrastructure, and climate events through this century. The next generation of leaders that we heard from today are just the people we need to address these challenges.”Marilu Hastings, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation
The Big Spring team suggested two initiatives: creating a city-wide alert system and building a micro-grid to connect to the nearby Panther Creek Wind Farm and allow use of local energy generation in times of crisis. The biggest challenges identified related to the micro-grid cost.
The Lufkin team proposal included steps toward weatherization, education of community members and the use of community centers as resource hubs and shelters. The team identified collaboration with convention centers and ongoing community engagement as challenges.
The San Juan team noted that residents of San Juan’s colonias were impacted disproportionately by adverse weather conditions and proposed a revolving micro-loan fund, allowing recipients to use loans for home improvement and construction projects. Because colonias are currently disconnected from current city efforts, community buy-in is a potential challenge.
The Weatherford team created an A. P. E. plan—awareness, protect, and energize—with implementation of solar power as a secondary source of energy and a solar backup generator for the city. Their proposal recommended three phases of action, beginning with improvement in communication and ending with the ambitious work to expand alternative energy sources.
Each image above is a link to the team’s presentation.