After 3 years, Itasca lands upgrade funding

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed funding for the project in 2010.

After 3 years, Itasca lands upgrade funding

Rebecca Harrington

Itasca, Minn. — Visiting the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories is like stepping back in time. Buildings resemble log cabins. Cellphone reception is spotty. Residents don’t lock their doors.

In May, the Minnesota Legislature approved $4.1 million in renovations which include a new, nearly 13,700 square-foot campus center, which is scheduled for December 2013 completion.

The College of Biological Sciences is responsible for $2 million of the total $6 million for the project.

CBS Dean Robert Elde said they have been trying to get the project funded for several years. The Legislature even passed the funding in 2010, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty line-item vetoed it.

Elde said the new campus center will house expensive, modern lab equipment. Unfortunately, he said, some of its doors will need to be locked for security reasons.

Itasca has hosted Nature of Life, a three-day, introductory class for freshmen for 10 years. Field research and field biology courses also take place at Itasca during the summer.

The campus center will have three laboratory classrooms, a 150-seat auditorium, office space, computer lab, the relocated library and an outdoor patio and fireplace.

Elde said they plan to make the center “zero-energy.” The building will have solar panels on the roof, geothermal wells and composting toilets.

Their goal, Elde said, is to winterize the station, starting with the center, so CBS can offer classes at Itasca year-round. Currently, the buildings cannot accommodate students in the winter.

“If we tried to heat those buildings that are up there now,” he said, “we’d blow a million bucks on propane a month!”

From the Viking-style horn station director David Biesboer sounds when students arrive, to the old dining bell that rings at mealtime, Itasca has long-standing traditions.

But the first classes at the station were offered in 1909, and with tradition comes age.

‘Uninhabitable’

Many of the approximately 65 buildings were built in the 1940s and 1950s, and according to Elde, they were not built to last.

He said the buildings that were built directly following World War II were designed after army barracks. The station buildings from this era have shallow foundations that consist of concrete slabs, which are not suited for the extreme Minnesota climate.

In a few buildings, including the botany lab built in 1946, there are noticeable gaps because they are sliding off their foundations. Modern biology equipment like iMacs and microscopes clashes with the cracked concrete floor and log cabin exteriors.

“You can’t do modern biology here,” Elde said.

The botany lab, the office building and the computer lab are scheduled to be demolished and replaced by the campus center in phase one of construction.

Elde estimated they have not used part of the 56-year-old computer lab for more than 10 years, calling it “uninhabitable.”

‘Very busy’

The sound of Biesboer’s Viking-style horn broke the quiet calm of wind through the iconic Itasca pines. Faculty, staff and peer mentors ran to greet two busses full of first-year CBS students, the fifth NOL session of the summer.

During a jam-packed three days, students take three mini-courses, or “modules,” meet classmates and professors and learn University traditions at night. Modules are held in places like the Mississippi headwaters, Lake Itasca and the bog.

Unlike the CBS academic year, NOL modules have names like  “Magnetotaxis — How Bacterial Jedi Use the Force,” and “Sex: it’s a great way to get around.”

During his welcoming remarks, Biesboer summarized the grueling schedule for the students.

“You’re going to be very busy, you’re going to learn a huge amount of material in a very short amount of time and you’re going to be tested on that material,” he said.

The test is one of the tactics NOL professors use as a “wake-up call” to college life.

Ayo Gazal, an associate peer mentor and CBS sophomore, asked first-year student Cody Jordan if high school came easy to him. Jordan said it did and that he figured the NOL test would, too.

“The best thing this test does is help you transition,” Gazal said. She added that the average student scores between 60 and 70 percent.

Emily Ellingson, CBS junior and peer mentor, said being able to observe actual biology at Itasca makes the station special.

“It’s things they couldn’t do in Minneapolis,” she said.

‘Camaraderie’

Professors stay at the station in the summer to teach field biology courses and NOL. Many professors’ families stay with them, and Ellingson said up to 12 children at a time were at the station this summer.

Biesboer said after teaching the students, his favorite thing about NOL is the bonds faculty share.

“I think the most important thing is the camaraderie among faculty members,” he said.

John S. Anderson, retired biochemistry professor, said CBS started NOL to bring students together.

“We needed to do something to build community,” he said, “so students would stick around for four years and graduate.”

Elde and Biesboer said the new campus center will not take care of all the winterizing the station needs.

Phase two, which has not been approved by the Legislature, would replace six student cabins and three faculty cabins so the station could be used year-round.

Elde said phases one and two will make the station last for another 100 years.

“It will have become an even more important place for the students and faculty of the college and the University,” he said.