Rural Futures Institute Invests in Research, Teaching Projects to Address Critical Rural Challenges, Find Solutions



Rural mental and physical health care access, entrepreneurship and technology are among the critical topics addressed by this year’s competitive teaching and research grants through the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska (NU).

Worth almost $400,000 in total, the 2017 grants engage faculty and students from across the four NU campuses as well as Kansas University, Purdue University, Peru State College and Wayne State College. At least 32 Nebraska communities, non-profit and business partners will be involved, and nearly all projects will include participation from K-12 students across the state.

“For America to thrive, our rural residents must thrive. The challenges and opportunities facing rural communities in Nebraska and across the country require action-oriented collaboration and commitment,” said RFI Founding Executive Director Chuck Schroeder. “The University of Nebraska, together with partners, is rigorously seeking and developing solutions that will help our rural people and places. Even more exciting, what we learn here can be scaled broadly, so Nebraska becomes a national model for building and sustaining vibrant rural communities of the future.”

The grants build on RFI’s successful Competitive Awards program that so far has funded 50 teaching and research projects in more than 100 Nebraska communities. The projects address unique challenges and opportunities facing rural populations in the areas of economic development, education, health care, diversity and inclusion and more.



2017 Teaching & Engagement Projects

Ending Mental Health Stigma & Promoting Mental Health Among Rural Nebraska College and University Students

Principal Investigator: Sonja Franziska Tutsch Russell, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Rural Health Education Network

The growing shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas, alongside the rising number of rural college and university students who experience mental health difficulties, calls for a comprehensive public health approach to addressing underlying causes of mental illness and related stigma. In collaboration with faculty and students at Wayne State College, the team seeks to develop and implement a promising mental health promotion curriculum aimed at addressing stigma and alleviating mental health difficulties among college and university students in Nebraska.


Obesity Intervention and Service Learning

Principal Investigator: Danae Dinkel, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Health Physical Education & Recreation

In an effort to combat the epidemic of rural pediatric obesity, Peru State College and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in partnership with rural stakeholders, seek to develop a new service-learning course for undergraduates. The course will introduce post-secondary students to service learning and the prevalence of overweight and obesity in rural areas. It will also seek to engage existing and new partnerships with community-based organizations for students’ service learning.


Teaching Health, Exercise, Technology, & Aquaponics (THETA) Day Camps to Grow Future Health Professionals

Principal Investigator: Gregory Brown, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Kinesiology & Sports Sciences

Developed by a team of seven faculty members at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) this project focuses on inspiring and motivating rural middle school students to pursue careers in health science. Students will participate in a series of half-day science education camps during which they will learn about various careers that are associated with health science topics through physical activity, nutrition and food growing programs. UNK undergraduate students with career goals in health science will lead the camps.


Systems Thinking for Sustainable Future

Principal Investigator: Ashu Guru, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

This project provides an opportunity for youth to develop system-thinking skills by understanding how food, energy and water systems are interconnected. Undergraduate students from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Engineering will design and develop aquaponics system kits as well as lesson plan trainings and implement the project in K-12 schools in rural Nebraska. They will use a train-the-trainer model to prepare middle school educators and high school students to implement the plan in their school system.


Rural Narratives on Welcoming Communities

Principal Investigator: Athena Ramos, University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Public Health, Center for Reducing Health Disparities

The team will use appreciative inquiry to interview community leaders about creating welcoming communities and work with partners to develop powerful narratives, provide access to resources and disseminate best practices.



2017 Research & Engagement Projects

Building Capacity for Developing, Implementing, and Evaluating the Family Health and Wellness Coalition’s Community Health Improvement Plan

Principal Investigator: Todd Bartee, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Kinesiology & Sports Sciences

The Family Health and Wellness Coalition was formed in 2015 with the focus of reducing chronic disease risk among Nebraska residents of Boone, Colfax, Nance and Platte counties. This emerging coalition is motivated yet hampered by challenges to participation, resources and other core capabilities such as planning, implementing and evaluating their work. Through this project, partners will produce a systematic community change process that can be replicated in other rural areas.


Assessment of and Treatment Applied to Food Addiction to Encourage Self-Management of Obesity

Principal Investigator: Trina Aguirre, University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Nursing

The research team will evaluate the efficacy of using nurse practitioners to deliver interventions to patients referred to an outpatient clinic for the treatment of obesity. The primary objective is to evaluate the efficacy of four interventions in obese rural patients with and without food addiction to develop effective, better-targeted interventions to help obese rural residents successfully self-manage their obesity, enabling them to live healthier lives and reduce the high cost of treating the comorbidities associated with obesity.


Nurturing High School Entrepreneurs and Transforming Local Business Owners

Principal Investigator: Surin Kim, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, College of Education and Human Sciences

There is a substantial need for educational programs that promote entrepreneurship and vocational skills for both adults and youth whose retention will be critical for rural futures. Such programs can help local business owners maintain and grow their enterprises and promote career readiness and entrepreneurship for youth. This project intends to analyze the unique needs of rural businesses and youth to implement a highly successful entrepreneurship program within the local context, modify as needed and disseminate via extension professionals and relevant educational entities.


Increasing Rural Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Principal Investigator: Roberto Gallardo, Purdue University, Purdue Center for Regional Development with University of Nebraska at Omaha and Nebraska Extension Co-Principal Investigators

There is significant interest in the role digital platforms play on increasing civic engagement in urban communities. However, their role in rural settings is not understood but critical as well. This project seeks to increase civic engagement in three rural Nebraska communities by developing strategies and tactics for engaging in conversations online, as well as social media training, to assist rural communities in increasing and improving overall engagement.


Extended project descriptions and lists of all current contributors and partners are available at

UNMC, ECDHD join forces in effort to prevent smoking

Courtesy photo Representatives of East Central District Health Department and the University of Nebraska Medical Center pose for a photo. The two health care providers are partnering on a research project focused on tobacco use.

Courtesy photo
Representatives of East Central District Health Department and the University of Nebraska Medical Center pose for a photo. The two health care providers are partnering on a research project focused on tobacco use.

COLUMBUS — What do different medical professions such as dentistry, radiography and nursing have in common? The unfortunate answer is tobacco.

When the University of Nebraska Medical Center and East Central District Health Department were deciding on a subject for an interdisciplinary research project, ECDHD executive director Rebecca Rayman said one of the reasons they ultimately chose tobacco and smoking prevention is because it applies to many medical disciplines and many of the health issues ECDHD treats.

“When this opportunity came to us, we looked at what are the major causes in the community for population mortality. The big two are heart disease and cancer, both of which are related to smoking and tobacco use,” Rayman said. “Then we looked at what if we could reduce smoking. We’d save millions of dollars and improve quality of life.”

The three UNMC students have seen the effects of tobacco in their rotations at rural hospitals.

Erica Boyd, a dentistry student, has done a rotation at ECDHD before. She’s seen the consequences of tobacco use and the lack of access to medical care in rural areas firsthand.

“What I found stunning is how far some people from the country will let their cancers get before coming to the doctor,” she said. “It’s hard to wrap my head around how they won’t come in until they’re not able to eat or breathe.”

Nursing student Paula Schaefer seconded that based on her experiences.

“We’ll see people coming into the hospital that their disease has progressed to an extensive level. Whether it’s cancer or cardiovascular disease, whether it’s respiratory disease, it magnifies it when they’re from a rural setting, and they’re less able to or less likely to seek medical treatment until it gets to a certain threshold where they have to,” Schaefer said. “And there’s many diseases that if you reach that tipping point, you’re on the way down and there are limited things we can do as interventions.”

Even though Tori Bailey, a radiography student from Norfolk, may not come into direct contact with patients, she sees the effects tobacco has.

“I do a lot of chest X-rays. You’ll get (the patients) coming in, and they’ll be coughing and everything and its COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Their lungs just look terrible,” Bailey said. “You’ll see the radiograph, and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ You can tell how much it’s affecting their body.”

For their three-week public health rotation at ECDHD, Bailey, Boyd and Schaefer are researching smoking prevention measures, what legislation has been passed and what has been effective.

Next semester’s group of UNMC students will conduct community-based research to help ECDHD and its affiliated health organizations develop strong, research-based legislation to reduce tobacco use in Nebraska.

“These three students will have the potential to have the biggest impact on the health of Nebraskans than any single physician if this project leads to legislation that reduces tobacco use,” Rayman said. “It’s a health issue, it’s an economic issue and a family issue.”

The project also indirectly addresses two other important medical issues. First is the difficulty rural communities have attracting medical professionals, even in a larger city like Columbus.

Patrik Johansson is director of the Rural Health Education Network at UNMC, which collaborates on rotations in rural clinics and facilities.

“Part of it is providing students the opportunity to work in a rural setting, which will hopefully raise awareness of opportunities and careers in rural care,” Johansson said.

Boyd said the walk-in dental clinic at ECDHD is always full because of the scarcity of dentists in surrounding areas. She just completed a rotation at a private dental practice in a town smaller than Columbus.

“The need is just much higher,” she said. “He’s booked out six months in advance.”

The project is also meant to encourage collaboration between different medical disciplines and counter the siloing that occurs when disciplines don’t communicate with one other.

“Everyone has unique gifts that come to the table. They’re trained in a specific path, but when you’re only using your path, you might miss something that they would be able to pick up,” Schaefer said. “It becomes a dynamic interchange. And the patient or the person you’re serving is the one who wins on that because they’re going to have the latest evidence and the best information instead of someone just guessing.”

“Anytime you pull in multiple perspective, multiple schools of thought or even multiple colleges of thought, it’s going to be beneficial to a project,” Boyd said.

The students will complete their three-week project next week, when they’ll give a presentation on their research.

By Christina Lieffring | Apr 16, 2016
Original Post »

This research project is one of the Rural Futures Institute’s 2015 Teaching & Engagement funded projects. Patrick Johansson is the principal investigator and the proposal is titled “Rural Interprofessional UNMC Student Rotations.”