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Iowa's Natural Heritage: Iowa Lakeside Lab: Okoboji

posted on October 9, 2009 at 1:39 PM

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Just as the natural environment is not static, human knowledge about how to preserve and conserve our natural heritage has to continually grow.  For 100 years, Iowa Lakeside Lab has trained scientists and citizens to solve tomorrow's environmental problems.

They’re called "Big Bugs."  And they were here because in the late 1800s Thomas Huston Macbride thought students should "learn about nature in nature."

The idea was made real in 1909 with Iowa Lakeside Lab on the shore of West Lake Okoboji. That’s why artist Dave Rogers' Big Bugs were here – to celebrate the Lab's 100th year.         

Lakeside Lab traces it's roots back to three men.  First came Samuel Calvin.  Born in Scotland,  Calvin arrived in 1873 at what would become the University of Iowa to teach as the only member of the department of natural science.

In 1878 Calvin hired Thomas Huston Macbride to teach botany, systematic zoology and biology.

At the same time, Bohumil Shimek came to the U of I as a student and earned money collecting specimens for the two teachers.  Eventually he joined the faculty too.   All three men taught at Lakeside.

The Lab started with just five acres for its concentrated summer study.  Facilities were rather basic.  One report said:

"Water was hauled from a well.  Meals were cooked on wood burning stoves. And students cultivated their own vegetables to reduce food expenses." 

Today, Lakeside encompasses 147 acres and can roughly be divided into three parts. 

The whole acreage is really a nature preserve.

The residential part of the campus has older cabins and transplanted motel units.  An old barn has been converted to a dining hall with a student lounge.

Then there is the teaching campus.  While much study does take place outside, they do need labs.  Five stone structures built by the CCC during the 1930s are on the National Register along with a number of other buildings.   

Students don’t grow their own veggies anymore, but Lakeside still follows its original mission, small groups studying nature in nature. 

Peter van der Linden, Exec. Dir., Lakeside Lab: ”It's not just a casual thing that you do coming to Lakeside Lab.  You have to really have a strong desire to have this kind of experience.” 

These students are working in the canals around West Lake Okoboji. They’re collecting samples for a course called the Ecology and Systematics of Diatoms.  Diatoms are microscopic single-celled algae.  The state of diatoms in bodies of water tells a lot about the quality of the water.   

Lakeside offers the only full semester-equivalent course on diatoms anywhere.  It’s so unique that students and researchers come here from all over the world. 

Jelena Andrejic,  Belgrade, Serbia:  “I found out about this course on the Internet in 2008 which is last year.  Last year I took the full class.  And I was drawn to this class, is actually the teachers. “

The  teacher is Sarah Spaulding, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based at the University of Colorado.

Sarah Spaulding:  “There are so few people that work on diatoms.  It's a complete irony that these organisms produce some 40% of earth's oxygen by photosynthesizing in the oceans.  So, they are globally important to our earth.  But the number of people that study these organisms, number on the whole world a few hundred.”          

As Spaulding says, diatoms “make it all happen.”  And with so few people studying them, students here have unique opportunities.

Sarah Spaulding:  “Several of the students have found new species in our excursions going out to the canal ... and we went to all our original literature, we went to literature that was written in 1909 and pulled that out and established that some of those things are, in fact, species that have not been described. ... And today they went out to go re-collect them so we could take pictures of them while they’re alive and characterize the cell, the type of chloroplast they have and be able to describe that.  And they're going to present it at a meeting in the fall.  I mean, it's just amazing that students can be involved in discovery.   And I don't know of very many fields where you can come in and be a part of that process.  It's fun."

This is Daryl Smith's 18


summer at Lakeside teaching about the prairie.


The University of Northern Iowa professor of biology is also director of the Tall Grass Prairie Center there.


Daryl Smith, University of Northern Iowa: “Well, I'm convinced that much of the book learning is too abstract.  It's essential, we need it, but I think if you can touch it and see it, you've got a much better, having a much more durable learning process going on.”

“We’re in the hayed prairie ... “

Daryl Smith, University of Northern Iowa:  “When we’re walking across the prairie we’ll be showing examples and seeing examples right there and it’s much easier to teach them and discuss them when you can show them what you’re talking about.” 

Smith says 70% of the class time is in the field.  He and his students travel to various sites in the area as well as out-of-state.  We followed them to a nearby prairie where they were documenting what was growing.  

Daryl Smith, University of Northern Iowa:  “What we're doing along this 30 meter transect is every meter we're laying down a quadrat that’s a 20x50 centimeter rectangle which is a tenth meter in area.  In that quadrat, they will identify all the species that are present and then collectively how much each species covers about an inch off the ground.  So, they'll be basically estimating how much coverage is provided by the stems of those particular species in there.

Daryl Smith:  And then while they’re doing that I’ll be recording a list of the species that are within one meter on either side of the transect line.” 

For Smith, studying and preserving prairie matters for several reasons.  There’s what he calls the more “romantic” reason.   Prairies are part of our cultural heritage.  Many of our pioneer ancestors were buried in landscapes like this.

This landscape also represents our biological heritage.  And the loss of the prairies has affected us in practical ways.

Daryl Smith, University of Northern Iowa:  “We lost the vegetation and the water holding capacity of the vegetation in the soil and I think we saw evidence of that in Cedar Falls and Iowa City last year with the floods.  I think if we'd have had a lot of those water sheds with prairie we wouldn't have had nearly the extensive floods that we did.  So, that's one thing we can point to that we've critically lost. “

Students here don’t just learn about the natural sciences. This is also an opportunity to learn about themselves.


When we stopped by, Mike Lannoo’s Conservation Biology students were doing their end of the semester clean-up.   It’s all part of the reality check that is Lakeside.  

Mike Lannoo, Indiana University School of Medicine: “Out here and you get to get wet and you get muddy and you get full of ticks.  It's hard work, it's hot work or it's cold work, it's always dirty work and that comes to roost here.  They come up here, they make it through that bottleneck, yes it's romantic, but it's also all this other stuff that isn't so pleasant.”

The other thing that’s striking on a visit to Lakeside is the sense of continuity and tradition that extends back 100 years. 

In Bill Norris’s Plant Taxonomy class, students possibly could have brought back the specimens they study in containers the early founders used. 

Bill Norris, Western New Mexico University:  “I’ll bet they did.  I’ll bet they did.  Pammel, Shimek, all those guys.  They might have used these.  These have been around a long time.”

What also has a long history at Lakeside is faculty lectures like this one that anyone can attend.  

Still, in the early 1990s, budget constraints caused the Regents to consider closing Lakeside.    Its supporters rallied behind it.

Lakeside reached out to the general public with progarms like what are called Wild Wednesdays for families.  This Wednesday was a scavenger hunt.   There are day camps for kids and other activities as well.

This one-week summer writers workshop is another example of change.  In 2006, Iowa Lakeside Lab became a Regents Resource Center for the northwest part of Iowa.  It’s expanded its academic mission beyond science and even beyond summer studies. 

Like the natural world it has studied for the last 100 years Lakeside is adapting and changing to survive and thrive in the next 100.


Additional Images: 

University of Iowa Archives, Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa:

- F.W. Kent Collection of Photographs

- Nuss, Elizabeth Frances. History of the State University of Iowa: The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory.  M.A. thesis, University of Iowa, 1946.

- Records of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory

- Papers of Robert B. Wylie

- Thomas Huston Macbride Papers

Calvin Photographic Collection, Department of Geoscience, University of Iowa

State Historical Society of Iowa - Iowa City, David Boot Album





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