Encouraging Sustainable Action in a New Generation

Meet Missouri Scientist Dr. Caroline Davies, Ph.D.

Written by Madalynn Owens, MOST PR Assistant

“We are in a climate crisis and we absolutely have to deal with it,” Dr. Caroline Davies, Ph.D. said. “COVID-19 wasn’t even a warm-up for what’s coming next. We have to absolutely change how we’re doing things.” 

Dr. Davies has many responsibilities at the University of Missouri – Kansas City including directing the Environmental Studies Program and teaching courses in geosciences. 

“I teach evolution so I have a deep-time perspective,” Davies said. “But at the same time, I work in community engagement so I see how sustainability is really authentic to Kansas City and the things we do here.”

Dr. Davies was always interested in pursuing science as a career, however, she began her research in archaeology, not environmental studies. After graduation, she traveled to the Middle East to work on excavations with teams of other archaeologists. Dr. Davies spent 5 years on this research before heading back to school to pursue a graduate degree studying the Paleolithic environment. The Paleolithic Era is also called the Old Stone Age, a period of time before written communication and where stone tools were originally discovered. Again, Dr. Davies focused her research on the Middle East, which involved a lot of reconstructing environments, because the time period lasted from roughly 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. 

“I learned how to characterize the environment using a whole range of scientific techniques,” Dr. Davies said. “Those same techniques work for the present environment as well. This helped me move from reconstructing ancient environments to studying today’s modern environment.”

Before Dr. Davies took the helm, the Environmental Studies program at UMKC didn’t exist the way it does now. Many of the faculty contributing towards the program wanted it to be as multidisciplinary as possible, pulling in knowledge and experts from a variety of fields and studies across the campus. The Environmental Studies program features classes from many different schools including economics, ethics, geoscience, law, and social sciences, among many others.

The Environmental Studies program at UMKC started out over a decade ago with enough courses to create a minor. The first graduate of the program became the UMKC’s Sustainability Coordinator, the first one at a campus in the University of Missouri System. Now, schools across Missouri have faculty leadership roles in sustainability as well as multiple areas and durations of study in sustainability. 

“Sustainability has caught on like wildfire at many campuses across the United States which is a great movement to watch happen,” Dr. Davies said.

Inspiring Young Researchers
Through an introductory environmental studies class, undergraduate students get hands-on experience making a change in their community. The final project of the general education course is to create a poster detailing their real-world project for the Annual Environmental Sustainability Research Symposium. 

“We can get hundreds of students taking this course in a semester because it fulfills the general education requirements,” Dr. Davies said. “My goal is to get this information out there because a vast majority of them have never even heard of sustainability, or they may have some knowledge but aren’t comfortable learning more on their own yet.”
  
The course introduces students to a variety of topics in sustainability and features guest speakers from across the region. The guest speakers are often experts in fields like energy, water conservation and urban agriculture.

“These students have access to some of the leading thinkers in sustainability, all in a general survey course,” Dr. Davies said.
The key part of the class is the research project that is presented at the symposium. These topics often have a personal connection for the students through where they live, work, or spend time in their community. For this project, students have completed research on a variety of topics ranging from the impact of switching out styrofoam containers at a food truck to installing motion sensor lighting at a university building. 

“They do the research, compile the data, and propose a solution to the problem they found,” Dr. Davies said. “This class is probably the one class they can take where the solution doesn’t actually have to happen and it can still be a great project.”
Dr. Davies mentions that many of the students conduct waste audits or propose adding green infrastructure for small businesses and organizations that don’t have the resources to follow through right away. However, many of these groups take the students’ research and work with them to develop a more reasonable plan, over a longer period, to make more sustainable changes.
Students have found time and time again that not only do these small, often individual, changes result in real environmental impact, but they often also save money.

“We keep track of the monetary savings that their research shows,” Dr. Davies said. “Every semester, the projects combine to equal over $100 thousand in savings if all were implemented.”
 
In the past, this course had been taught on campus, meaning there had been over 600 projects focused on making the Kansas City area more sustainable. However, last spring when universities all over the globe transitioned to virtual learning, the projects had to transition to virtual research as well. The transition didn’t decrease the productivity of the research, all but 3 projects were completed last spring. This spring, with hybrid and virtual learning still in place, there are projects being completed all over the globe, from Portland, Oregon to China to Virginia to Kuwait.

“This just shows this research can be done anywhere,” Dr. Davies said. “By the end of the semester, students always come up with really impressive work. They have such ownership and passion for their research and it’s been a great way to disseminate knowledge about sustainability to students who would have never been motivated to be involved before.”

Planning for the Future
Dr. Davies stressed the importance of change in fields such as sustainability, citing that even the definition of sustainability has adapted since she got involved in the field 20 years ago. 

“It’s becoming more about resilience, about bouncing back from things like hurricanes and pandemics,” Dr. Davies said. “It’s also changing to think more about being regenerative, how do we transition the processes for production and consumption to becoming more circular and efficient instead of a single linear process.”

Referencing her archaeology research from her undergraduate degree, Dr. Davies mentions the difference in architecture from over a thousand years ago to now. On an excavation team she was a part of, they discovered a Roman guard tower that was over 2,000 years old and still had the same structure and angles as the day it was built. 

“If we are going to be sustainable it’s all about the planning,” Dr. Davies said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing community engagement or designing a building we need to begin planning longer into the future. Why aren’t we planning smarter and more long-term when we certainly have the technology to do so.”

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