Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2008 | Features

Hands-On Learning

By Carol Harker
In a remote corner of Iowa, a historic UI laboratory provides hands-on learning.

closeup view of a common toad

A century ago, and with support from the UI Alumni Association, ProfessorThomas H. Macbride realized his dream of establishing a biological field station for all of Iowa's students. When summer classes commenced along the shore of Miller's Bay on West Okoboji Lake in northwest Iowa, no one attending could have failed to notice that the new Lakeside Lab was about as far from Iowa City as it's possible to go and still remain within state borders.

In those days, faculty and students alike were advised to take the train to one of the nearby railroad towns, from which they could hire a horse-drawn wagon to deliver their trunks to the station. The people themselves arrived at Lakeside via steamer across the lake.

Once they disembarked onto the dock below the station, they climbed 60 feet up the bluff to discover tents set up for housing, an H-shaped laboratory, barns, a farmhouse, and various other small buildings that offered few comforts. It was the natural environment that enticed them to study beside the lake.

Eleven of Lakeside Lab's 37 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, including this native stone laboratory built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Macbride, 28LLD, and his UI colleagues, Samuel Calvin and Bohumil Shimek, 1883CE, 1902MS, had been exploring the area for decades. It was unique even then, before the Iowa hills became a blanket of corn and soybeans stretching from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers—for this part of Dickinson County was a portion of Minnesota lake country shoved south during the last Ice Age.

The area features almost everything a naturalist could want to study. Various types of wetlands and lakes, original prairie of both tall and short grasses, typical knob and kettle topography, and oak woods provide shelter and sustenance for a rich variety of flora and fauna. West Okoboji Lake is a deep lake—the last such body of water between the eastern part of the country and the mountains of the West.

Long before chemical runoff from farm fields became an issue for water quality and 100 years before accelerating climate change became nearly universally accepted, Macbride knew that this remote enclave of diverse ecosystems would have much to teach people about the interactions between species and environment, about conservation, and about stewardship of natural resources.

Whether studying microscopic diatoms, clearing brush as part of prairie restoration, or studying conservation biology by trekking into a wetland, Lakeside Lab students are inspired by an extraordinary place.

In the late 1920s, nebride's wishes—Lakeside Lab has welcomed students from any and all Iowa colleges. Over the years, it has hosted students and scholars from across the country and around the globe, including France, New Zealand, Macedonia, even Mongoliaarly another 100 acres was added to the original five purchased by UI alumni. During the Depression, men working for the Civilian Conservation Corps erected several stone buildings at Lakeside Lab. Later still, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, took the lab under its wing. Always—per Mac.

Whether it's fungi, frogs, insects, birds, fishes, mosses, algae, watersheds, bogs, fens, vascular plants, savanna, or prairie communities, students of all ages find a wealth of material at Lakeside Lab. Since establishment of the Friends of Lakeside Lab in the 1990s, the station has become more active in welcoming area visitors to participate in nature hikes, water collection, lectures, and more, as well as opening its gates to youngsters who—when given the opportunity—become irrepressible explorers of the natural world.

No doubt Professor Macbride would be tickled to learn that middle schoolers at a weeklong "Frog Camp" a few years ago were such avid learners that they tied the college kids at Lakeside in a game of "Jeopardy" that pitted the groups against each other.

Despite its longevity, Lakeside Lab has been vulnerable over the years, a target of budget cuts and ever-increasing development in Iowa's Great Lakes region, where lakefront property now sells for $1,500 per inch. Fortunately, Iowa alumni backed Professor Macbride a century ago, believing in his vision, and Friends of Lakeside Lab today continue to advocate for the living laboratories they treasure.

As Peter J. van der Linden, current executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory puts it, "This is the people's laboratory."