Inaugural UT-Austin interdisciplinary student challenge winners find economic solutions for Texas town

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Debra Dzwonczyk | Daily Texan Staff

Winners of UT’s IC2 Institute’s George Kozmetsky Memorial Student Challenge were awarded $7,000 for their project, which proposed economic solutions for the small city of Childress, Texas.

The challenge is a research initiative open to all students. The goal is to develop solutions to problems faced by real Texas communities outside of urban corridors. Economics graduate student Sarang Murthy, civil engineering sophomore Aaron Wheat and sociology senior John Higgins worked to develop the winning project of building a startup business incubator and museum in Childress. 

The challenge requires each team to be interdisciplinary, with members from at least two different colleges, according to the IC2 website. Team Boerne won second prize for $5,000, and Team Van Horn won third prize for $3,000.

The Childress team began with five members. However, Murthy said two participants dropped out in September due to personal issues. Murthy said the group had to navigate the difficulties of online collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were sure this was not going to work well for us,” Murthy said. “Now we had 15% more work, and we met every day. We spent an hour to two hours (together) basically every day for a month.”

 

Murthy said he was in Bangalore, India, visiting family when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the country into lockdown, so the team was also battling a 12-hour time difference when meeting. 

Their proposal includes adding a historical museum, events center and startup incubator to the Childress Hotel as well as hosting an annual Childress County festival. Higgins said the team studied the demographics in order to understand what needs Childress has as a city.

“The city is dominated by a mix of local businesses that cater to people who come through U.S. 287 and locals who lived in Childress their whole lives,” Higgins said. “What are ways that we help develop their own little economy?”

Wheat said meeting with town officials over Zoom allowed the team to know the town on a personal level. 

“One of the challenges in rural cities is understanding the culture because the culture defines the way the city grows,” Wheat said. “In massive cities like Austin (or) Houston, there’s subcultures … , but within cities like Childress … it is very unique, and you have to understand it in order to propose developmental solutions.”

Doc Smith, executive director at the Childress Municipal Development District, said city business leaders and officials are now looking at the proposals of the Childress team to find ways to draw new businesses into the city and grow the local economy.

“All of sudden, I am getting some buy-in from local investors and local city leaders,” Smith said. “It has been an uplifting experience."