Lakeside Laboratory: botany at beachside


Daily Staff Writer

OKOBOJI – Boating and swimming at the mythical University of Okoboji will not get students any closer to graduation. However, students can earn academic credit from the 16 courses taught at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on Okoboji Lake.

The Lab offers hands-on field-oriented study of lakes, wetlands and prairies.

Most students at Lakeside Lab live in small, furnished cottages with no heat or plumbing. At 7 a.m., loud clanging on an old steel truck wheel rim summons students to breakfast served family style in a 19th century horse barn converted into a mess hall.

“Summer school at Lakeside Lab is very different from classes on campus because we live and work in fairly primitive conditions,” said Sally Reed, a senior in landscape architecture.

Small classes of eight to 10 students meet from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Weather permitting, students normally spend part of each day outdoors doing field work. They might hike in prairies, wade in marshes or boat to study some of the 50 species of fish in the lake.

“The days are long and sometimes tiring, but it’s a unique experience and we have fun,” Reed said.

Lakeside classes are taught by 18 instructors from the three Iowa universities and other schools from Michigan to California. ISU provides six botany instructors, including Lab Director Arnold van der Valk. George Brown and Charles Drewes from the zoology department teach a class on techniques in biological teaching for high school educators.

Iowa Lakeside Laboratory is located on a 140-acre campus on Little Millers Bay on the west shore of West Okoboji Lake. Thomas H. MacBride, a University of Iowa professor, established the Lakeside Lab in 1909 for the “study of nature in nature.” It is a specialized facility where students can get hands-on experience working with native ecosystems, learn the characteristics of healthy ecosystems and learn to interpret and diagnose the symptoms of damaged ecosystems and how to restore them to health.

In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built four teaching laboratories, a library, a boat house, a bath house and four cottages for students out of field-stone and wood. These buildings are now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Lakeside Laboratory was initially run as a private, non-profit organization. The operation and management of the laboratory was taken over in 1947 by what is now the Iowa Board of Regents. It is now run cooperatively for and staffed by all three state universities. The regents determine the total budget, and the University of Iowa pays 50 percent, Iowa State University pays 30 percent and the University of Northern Iowa pays 20 percent.

This year, the Regents cut the Lakeside Laboratory’s budget because “they were not satisfied with the management of the lab,” said Arnold van der Valk, lab director since 1994. The Regents want to see more students benefit from the lab, a broader curriculum and more involvement with the local community.

The Peat Marwick university evaluation study in the late 1980’s recommended selling the Okoboji property and closing the Lakeside Laboratory. However, that was not possible because the deed under which the land was donated did not allow it to be sold.

Progress at the Lab is evident in many areas. Enrollment is up to 100 this year, compared to approximately 60 students in recent years. Eight new housing units acquired from the Old Beach Resort have been installed, and six additional units are in the works.

“It’s much nicer housing,” said van der Valk. “These units have indoor plumbing, which most of the other housing at Lakeside do not.”

Three-fourths of the courses are new or revised this year. One popular new course outside the biological sciences is archaeology, which includes a field trip to nearby sites. New educational programs for local residents are held for two hours on Wednesday evenings, and public lectures are presented on Sunday evenings from mid-June to mid-August.

Most classes are three credits and meet for three weeks, but there are also one, two, four and five credit classes. Courses are offered in various areas of biology, archaeology, aquatic life, ecology, entomology, evolution, geology, ornithology and plant taxonomy. Some courses are taught only in alternate years.

Summer of 1996 courses will include conservation biology, fish ecology, plant-animal interactions and wetland ecology. The registration deadline is May 1. Further information is available at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory Administrative Office in 131 Bessey Hall at ISU or by calling 294-2488.

Efforts are underway to raise funds for student room and board scholarships and a proposed Water Quality Lab. Friends of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a new non-profit organization, was incorporated to provide local input into the future direction of the Laboratory and to help raise funds. More information in available from Friends of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, Box 242, Okoboji, IA 51355