ABE professor receives NIFA grant for disaster-relief education
Study group in Puerto Rico
Luis Rodriguez (top row, in black shirt) with students and collaborators in Cataño, Puerto Rico, during a May 2019 study trip.

Luis F. Rodriguez, associate professor in agricultural and biological engineering at University of Illinois, has received a $750,000 grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to develop project-based education on disaster relief and resilience. The grant will support courses and study abroad programs conducted in collaboration with partners in Puerto Rico.

Rodriguez had been teaching classes comparing food and agricultural systems in the U.S. Midwest and the tropics for several years, when a planned study abroad trip to Puerto Rico had to be cancelled due to the impact of Hurricane Maria in fall 2017.

“The students wanted to see if there was something we could do in order to help the situation. Eventually, we created a class specifically on disaster relief and resilience,” he explains.

The course, offered in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), focuses on studying the infrastructure and evaluating needs for assistance in areas affected by natural disasters. Students work on engineering projects and urban planning, developing solutions that are appropriate for the local context.

For example, Rodriguez says, “In many instances we can build resilience through solutions that might be relatively easy and well understood, such as rainwater harvest. That’s manageable at a small scale and can also be extended to neighborhoods and towns.”

Rodriguez, a Puerto Rico native, developed the project-based course in collaboration with University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and Caras con Causa, a non-profit group that provides community engagement education and ecosystem restoration programs.

Students taking the ABE course also learn about communications tasks such as fundraising and writing grant proposals. In fact, the current NIFA grant is a result of a proposal originally developed by a group of students.

Rodriguez says the grant supports both spring and fall course activities, as well as a summer research program that allows for continuity in the student-developed projects.

“The funding will also help connect the students to their peers at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. While the Puerto Rican students primarily will have a greater responsibility in stakeholder and community engagement, given their proximity, all students will seek to find solutions and test them with community members,” he explains. 

“In addition, the NIFA grant adds validation and verification to the project. The investment from the federal government gives us added credentials as we engage with industry partners,” Rodriguez says.

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, study tours are currently suspended, but Rodriguez is working on safe travel protocols to be implemented when traveling again becomes possible.

Until then, he is planning virtual exchanges so students can learn to integrate and understand the perspectives of local communities. This is aligned with an additional goal of the grant project: to eventually create a virtual resource center for disaster-related challenges. 

The Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) is in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois.