The State of the Rockies: A Dynamic Approach to Environmental Academia

Many students of Colorado College possess an unmatched passion for the environment and a strong drive for academic success. On a campus situated in the foothills of the Front Range, CC students are constantly reminded of their positionality as advocates for the environmental health of the Rocky Mountains and its surrounding landscapes.

The State of the Rockies project, founded in 2003 by environmental studies professor Emeritus Dr. Walter E. Hecox, allows CC students to explore the socio-environmental issues of the West through academic research, education, and outreach. The research is independently designed with the goal of making the findings relevant to policy makers. Colorado college fellows also take the time to educate the Colorado Springs, community about their findings. 

Associate professor of political science Corina McKendry recently undertook the task of redesigning the State of the Rockies project with the hope of making it accessible to more students. As the new director of the project, she recently implemented a model of director rotation every two to three years. She believes that through this model, along with an annual State of the Rockies block, the program will become more relevant to a larger population of CC.

State of the Rockies summer research is unlike traditional research done at CC. “The research we conduct is more graduate school style, with each fellow choosing a specific, unique aspect of a larger project,” said professor McKendry. “My research primarily focuses on climate vulnerability and adaptation and how it intersects with urbanization and socio-economic inequality. So all of the projects conducted this summer will be related to my work.” 

Six rising seniors will work for the project this upcoming summer. “The State of the Rockies provides a unique opportunity for CC students to work with professors and the surrounding community in order to learn more about our local physical and political environment and strive to make positive change through research,” said Luci Kelemen ’20, one of the research fellows for the summer of 2019. 

“This project is of great interest to me because it allows me to research topics intimately related to my life and career goals through an academic lens,” said fellow Lily Weissgold ’20. “I look forward to putting my ongoing work in the Colorado Springs community into conversation with existing research, and ultimately creating both community and academically focused products. I hope to show underclassmen that being involved in the wider community is both personally and academically rewarding.”

The project takes a particularly dynamic approach to research. “In addition to the focus on academic research and trying to publish in journals, the project also has ambitions to speak with stakeholders, politicians, and policy makers about the projects that we’re conducting,” said Ethan Greenberg ’20, another research fellow for the coming summer. “A large part of my interest in the project came from its real-world application of scientific research.”

Another large aspect of the project involves polling western states about opinions on climate change. The 2019 poll found that an overwhelming majority of the residents of eight western states believed climate change to be a real threat and stated that they were personally experiencing its effects. 

As far as the actual ‘state of the Rockies,’ there are multiple issues impacting the West. “I believe there are four major threats facing the Rocky Mountain West,” said professor McKendry. “In no particular order [they are]: increased wildfire intensity and frequency, extreme precipitation and changing weather events, water scarcity, and the urban heat island effect.”

Through the newly revamped State of the Rockies project, CC students are able to see the way these threats, specifically extreme precipitation, touched the lives of others. “In the State of the Rockies Block 5 class I taught called ‘Urbanization and Nature on the Front Range,’ we traveled to Boulder County and saw how areas of the county are struggling to recover from a large flood back in 2013,” said professor McKendry. “While the actual city is completely repaired, there are houses in the mountains that have had to build makeshift bridges in order to access their homes. You see this tiny creek and it’s hard to believe that it could cause that much damage, but the redistribution of the precipitation in more extreme forms is capable of causing incredible damage.”

The State of the Rockies project serves the CC, Front Range, and Rocky Mountain West communities through rigorous research. The project has a multitude of applications outside of scientific journals, making it of considerable value to many. If this project interests you, professor McKendry hopes to host a conference next year during second Block Break where scholars, practitioners, and CC fellows will bring people together to discuss issues larger than the CC campus. 

The State of the Rockies project is also currently hosting a photo contest for a cash prize. Visit their page on the CC website to learn more. 

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