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