Urban Agricultural and Sustainability Program at Houston’s Downtown University: Combining New Curriculum, Hands-on Projects, and a Hurricane

  • Lisa Morano University of Houston–Downtown
  • Vassilios Tzouanas University of Houston–Downtown
Keywords: Urban Agriculture, Undergraduate, Aquaponics, Hydroponics, Curriculum, Mentoring, Hurricane, Sustainable Development, Renewable Energy Systems, Resilience, Climate Change


The University of Houston–Downtown (UHD), a Hispanic-serving institution, launched an educa­tional program in 2016 that engages undergradu­ates in a summer curriculum with a hands-on project focused on urban agriculture and sustaina­bility. The goals are to deliver new content, create purposeful interdisciplinary teams, and engage the participants, who are largely students of color, through mentoring and professional-development activities. In this reflective essay, we discuss improvements made between the first and second year and pro­gram elements that were most effective. The 2017 cohort was simultaneously engaged in two courses and the creation of an aquaponics system. Each student group created a system that could grow fish and hydroponic plants using solar energy. Qualitative student survey results indicate that the program increased student knowledge and affected career directions. The program was designed to extend mentoring from the summer through fall to optimize projects and prepare students for presen­tations on and off-campus. However, these plans had to be modified as Harvey, the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history, flooded the school and destroyed the student aquaponic systems. Fall plans now include rebuilding a single aquaponics system and consideration of resiliency in future sustaina­bility initiatives. The most critical elements of this program have been shown to be students’ intense immersion in curriculum and projects, creating cross-disciplinary student groups, mentoring across the program, and, finally, maintaining flexibility. The hurricane’s incursion into our program also stands as a powerful backdrop for discussions not only at our university but nationally of how we create sustainable communities and agricultural systems in a world that will continue to experience climatic changes.

Author Biographies

Lisa Morano, University of Houston–Downtown
Department of Natural Sciences, University of Houston–Downtown, One Main Street, Houston, TX 77002-1001
Vassilios Tzouanas, University of Houston–Downtown
Department of Computer Sciences and Engineering Technology, University of Houston–Downtown, One Main Street, Houston, TX 77002-1001