Summer session explores Itasca wildlife

While beakers, test tubes and safety goggles adorn the laboratories most students are used to, the laboratories of a lesser-known University campus are filled with live birds and mammals, algae, and 200-year old pine trees.

The University’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, located in northern Minnesota at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, provides such a learning environment. Since 1935, the College of Biological Sciences has held intensive five-week summer field sessions that immerse interested students from any college or university into the environments of the organisms they study.

Through courses in subjects such as field ornithology, telemetry and aquatic botany, the station provides a learning experience that is not offered elsewhere on the University campus.

Dave Biesboer, station director and University professor of plant biology, said the chance to observe organisms in their natural habitats is becoming rarer. He said he believes the experience gives students a realistic, albeit sometimes unromantic, idea of how field work is conducted.

“Field work, whether for classes or for independent research, is not particularly easy. It takes a little bit of grit and determination to gather data while fighting off a few mosquitoes or ticks,” he said.

However, for many students, the rewards of field work make it worth dealing with the elements and unwelcome pests.

“The material is a lot easier to learn when you experience it first hand,” said Thea Fleming, an ecology, evolution and behavior student.

She said she believes that the community at the station is unique.

“The whole class is so close because we spend so much time with each other, are constantly interacting and are all enjoying what we are learning, which you rarely get in a classroom-taught class,” Fleming said.

With an average enrollment of 55 students and eight-hour-long class periods, students “see the value of an intensive course where teamwork and close associations with fellow students are important,” said Biesboer, who believes the experience prepares students for future field work.

Along with interaction in courses, activities such as sports tournaments, weekend trips to the bar and informal faculty-student barbecues also create a sense of community, students said.

“I’ve formed good connections with my professors and have gotten to know lots of fun biology people,” Fleming said.

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