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University of Minnesota

New digs at Itasca

September 26, 2012

Clyde Allen, Bob Elde, Eric Kaler and Tom Devine at Itasca groundbreaking 2012.

University Regent Clyde Allen, College of Biological Sciences Dean Robert Elde, University President Eric Kaler, and Regent Tom Devine wield shovels at the groundbreaking for the new campus center at the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.
Photo: Jonathan Pavlica

The U's northwoods biological station will soon get an upgrade

The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. So do a lot of careers in biology.

On the shores of the lake, College of Biological Sciences (CBS) freshmen get their bearings as future biologists through Nature of Life, a required, four-day introduction to science and their fellow biology students at the college's Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.

On September 21, 2012, University President Eric Kaler headed a group of dignitaries who broke ground for a new campus center at Itasca. Its 12,000 square feet will contain modern laboratories, classrooms and offices, a multipurpose room (capacity: 150), and a library/computer room. Made possible by a $4.1 allocation from the Minnesota Legislature, the center will replace three obsolete buildings and quadruple the number of full-time employees at the facility.

The need for new and improved facilities was pressing.

Every July CBS buses 450 incoming students to Itasca for Nature of Life. But the number of students using the station has grown by 20 percent in the last five years. The new center will help the college keep up with rising enrollment by increasing the station's faculty-student capacity to 130. It will also allow the station to operate in the winter, when the current World War II-era buildings are too expensive to heat.

"The rebuilding of Itasca means it will be a year-round asset to the U and to this community," said Kaler. "For our first-year CBS students, this is an important launching pad for a very special orientation program called Nature of Life."

Design for life

The design will use the latest strategies for minimizing energy use and move the field station and laboratories toward its goal of energy self-sufficiency. Just replacing single-function buildings with a multiuse campus center reduces energy and operational costs.

Besides its claim to fame as the headwaters of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca makes an ideal setting for fledgling biologists because it sits at the juncture of three major biomes: pine forest, hardwood forest and tallgrass prairie. There, students can see plant and animal species that have disappeared from other parts of Minnesota.

They can also rub shoulders with researchers studying all manner of topics, from aquatic and terrestrial ecology to climate change and endangered species. One long-running endeavor, the Mississippi Metagenome Project, enlists students to study microbes of the great river from its headwaters to the Twin Cities and beyond.

"We are Minnesota's only comprehensive research university, and we are particularly proud of the opportunities we provide our undergraduates," Kaler noted.

The Itasca station also hosts graduate student orientations and a summer field biology session open to undergraduates of all Minnesota colleges and universities.

Besides the usual shovel ceremony, groundbreaking day included tours of the station and the headwaters area, where Lake Itasca water runs through a rough causeway of rocks to emerge on the other side as the infant Mississippi River.

"It was an exhilarating, emotional [time]," said CBS Dean Robert Elde. "Everyone there had a personal connection to Itasca and hopes of sharing the Itasca experience with future generations of students. The groundbreaking symbolized our success in making that happen."

Construction of the campus center is slated to begin in April 2013 and end that December.

Tags: College of Biological Sciences

Related Links

Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories

Nature of Life

College of Biological Sciences

Office of the President

Robert Elde