SRSU IT team named ‘Rookie of the Year’ in national competition

From left to right: Keith Nixon with students Caleb Wood, Branden Lewis, Kyle Villalon, Teresa Quintana, Christopher Bell, Heber Montoya, Nana Prempeh and Dr. Eric Busby.

In their first appearance at the country’s premier homebuilder trade show, the Sul Ross State University Industrial Technology Club was named “Rookie of the Year.”

Seven students and their instructors flew to Orlando in early February for a live presentation at the university level competition of the National Association of Homebuilders International Builders Show, after submitting their 27-page project in December.

In addition to four-year colleges, high school students and those seeking an associate degree all compete on an annual basis. Sul Ross was contending with far larger schools, including the University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M University, Clemson University and the University of Florida. 

Keith Nixon, an adjunct professor of industrial technology at SRSU, said students are given a real-life scenario on which to base their proposals for either production homes or custom homes. This year, they were challenged with 120 acres in Celina, Texas, north of Dallas.  

Production homes are typically found in subdivisions which have been pre-planned. “You’re given a raw piece of land and you’re asked to design a neighborhood from scratch,” said Nixon. The buyers choose their lot, floor plan, elevation and amenities from a limited number of options. Custom homes are one of a kind, built to owners’ specifications.

The Sul Ross team chose to compete in the production category. Their proposal addressed several factors, including market analysis, design, sustainability, estimates, scheduling, finance and risk analysis. 

In Orlando, industry professionals judged the team in person. “They challenge you on anything you put into it, or anything you’ve left out. It’s all fair game,” said Nixon. 

In addition to the competition, Nixon said the trade show broadens the students’ horizons. “I think they got a glimpse into how big the world really is and how innovative it can be,” said Nixon. “They were pleasantly surprised to see the number of people interested in improving the industry.”

He said a couple of students got the experience of a mock interview. All of them brought business cards to hand out. “The judges loved that,” he said. “Being there strengthens the reputation of Alpine and the university.”

The Industrial Technology Department at SRSU has undergone significant changes in recent years under the leadership of its chair, Dr. Eric Busby, who arrived in 2019 to “rebrand and reconfigure the program.” 

Busby has a doctorate in housing and community development from Texas Tech University. He has worked in architecture, real estate development and construction management for projects ranging from law enforcement centers and jails to schools and sports facilities for the NBA and MLB.

The program now offers a Bachelor of Science degree in IT with specializations in construction management, manufacturing and supply chain, in which a Master of Business Administration is also available. Students who are majoring are also required to take 18 hours of business courses.

“There has to be some business and there has to be some labor,” said Busby. “In any industry, you can’t be a one trick pony.”

Busby said the program prefers a “hands-on approach,” exposing students to as many options and outcomes as possible. They visit live construction sites and learn to drive a skid steer and dig a trench.

He also has an eye on steady growth and plans to add to the catalog of online courses. “I have students that won’t be able to stop work and come to Alpine, but I can take Alpine to them,” he said. “This is about how to get that degree in their hand so they can get work.”

When Busby arrived at Sul Ross, there were seven IT students. There are now nearly 40. Alpine and the region can benefit from the program, he said, because Sul Ross is training the students to work in an area where there is a labor shortage. “Some of them will build businesses here while they’re in school,” he said.

The IT Club, which operates under guidelines from NAHB, is the only one in West Texas. Getting the students out into the world, to places like Orlando, does more than build their resumes, said Busby, “It introduces the world to Sul Ross.”