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Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability

Providing Hands-On Opportunities for Students


By Holly Beretto

One of the hallmarks of a UHD education has always been the opportunity for students to engage with real-world challenges. That’s especially true with programs under the umbrella of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability (CUAS), led by Dr. Lisa Morano, Professor of Biology & Microbiology.

DJI_0006“Engaging students in real-life experiential learning, defined as doing projects that are related to real-life learning, with their hands and in groups, helps them focus and stay engaged in the curriculum,” she says. “It helps students see what kinds of things they would be doing with the information that they're learning in class." It keeps them motivated, she says, and it helps show them where they're going with their degree. Dr. Morano went on to add that experiential learning affords students autonomy that they might not have in the classroom.

Morano came up with the idea for the CUAS in 2015, and it opened in 2016, with support from a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture (NIFA USDA). She used the funding to create the CUAS, build student programs, and enhance existing curriculum. The USDA renewed Morano’s grant in 2019.

Among the student opportunities supported by CUAS is the SUSTAIN Scholars program, which allows students to meet weekly with Dr. Morano and CUAS co-director Dr. Vassilios Tzouanas, attend sessions with guest speakers, and then work in teams during the spring semester to build something that solves a problem in sustainability or urban agriculture. There’s also a semester-long UHD Garden Program that allows students to work in UHD’s two garden areas, learning how to grow plants, troubleshoot issues, and enhance their understanding of biology and botany. They can also take home any produce grown. CUAS square

Two other initiatives for student involvement are a recycling program to help the campus community understand the importance of recycling and help with collecting and sorting recyclables, and Sustain-A-Gator, which turns participants into ambassadors, educating fellow UHD students about the importance of sustainability. All programs are supported by CUAS staff member Ms. Adriana Penabad, who has experience in environmental science and growing food and is currently working on a degree in renewable energy.

All CUAS programs pay students a stipend, something that Dr. Morano says is important.

“If we expect students to engage in activities outside the class with no stipend attached, how can they do that?” she asks rhetorically. “If they are paying for their own education, those would be hours that they are not working, so this is a social justice issue.”

Dr. Morano has received funding from the USDA and from private corporations to help fund student stipends.

Giving students access to these programs helps them not only deepen their understanding of their subject matter (most are majoring in Biology and Microbiology), but also provide valuable experience for their resumes. Whether they intend to pursue graduate programs or work in industry, the hands-on work they’ve done with CUAS positions them well to succeed.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.