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LINCOLN — A University of Nebraska-Lincoln project to encourage youth entrepreneurship in rural communities has received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The project, which partners high school students with rural business owners, will be led by Surin Kim, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising and fashion design and a Nebraska Extension entrepreneurship specialist. Kim will serve as principal investigator and research the economic and social underpinnings of rural flight of youth and young adults in Nebraska.

The USDA grant — “Leveraging Community Connections, Local Issues, and Youth High Tech Entrepreneurship Education to Nurture Rural Economic Opportunities” — creates an innovative educational intervention. It engages high school students in learning science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — or STEAM — and entrepreneurial skills to help solve real local issues.

“Our students will create STEAM-based solutions to address challenges faced by local business owners while we study what youth think about their future in local communities and how this partnership might change their perceptions about staying or returning to their rural communities,” Kim said.

High school students participating in school-based and 4-H programs will collaborate with local community leaders, small business owners and educators to develop solutions for local businesses. Entrepreneurial activities will support social connections and attachment to local communities, with the goal of increasing retention and contribute to the vitality of rural communities.

“We are applying reverse mentoring,” Kim said. “Youth becomes problem solvers for local businesses, and local businesses become clients. Our students will create STEAM-based solutions to address challenges faced by local business owners while we study what youth think about their future in local communities and how this partnership might change their perceptions about staying or returning to their rural communities.”

The $493,560 USDA grant comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. The initiative combats a number of pervasive issues in the United States, including improving rural economies.

“Rural population decline, especially outmigration of youth, is the biggest threat to rural economic vitality,” Kim said. “Research tells us that the brightest young people — those who have the greatest potential to create economic opportunities in the community — are the ones leaving. They do not see a future in their rural communities and not exposed to growth-oriented business models, like tech startups. We’ll be examining factors of lifestyle and career decisions that are connected to intentions to stay or return to their communities.”

Youth in the project will learn STEAM skills such as coding and “making” along with entrepreneurial skills to help them create real-world solutions for local businesses. While doing that, Kim hopes that youth will connect with their communities on a deeper level and build potential economic opportunities for their rural futures.

A maximum of six communities will participate with 20 to 30 youth involved from each community. Nebraska communities interested in joining can contact Kim at [email protected] or visit http://go.unl.edu/high-tech-clinics.

The program will consider any business focusing on growth.

The project, which was piloted by the team and initially sponsored by the University of Nebraska’s Rural Futures Institute, will operate for five years and include a “train the trainer” component. Local educators and community leaders will be trained to sustain the program after the completion of the evidence-based curriculum.

“Textiles, merchandising and fashion design faculty are perfectly situated to lead an initiative such as this,” said Michael James, department chair. “Our faculty is multi-disciplinary leaders in teaching, research and outreach, and part of our mission is to design creative solutions and help grow opportunities for Nebraska. This project aligns perfectly with the holistic approaches our faculty employ.”

Other Nebraska faculty participating in the grant as co-principal investigators are Maria Rosario de Guzman, associate professor, child, youth and family studies and Nebraska Extension youth development specialist; Ashu Guru, assistant professor, biological systems engineering and 4-H Youth Development; and Claire Nicholas, assistant professor, textiles, merchandising and fashion design.

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