ITASCA STATE PARK - Nestled in a corner of Itasca State Park, overlooking the park's namesake lake, is the University of Minnesota's Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.
The station, established in 1909, is owned by the University of Minnesota and operated by its College of Biological Sciences. The station hosts freshmen orientation every July and graduate students throughout the year for research.
The biological station now is about to undergo a major renovation. A new campus center will replace three obsolete buildings and provide 12,000 square feet of technology-enabled laboratories, new classrooms/offices, a multipurpose room and a library/computer room.
Improvements will allow the station to more fully operate year-round; it currently can host only about 28 people in the wintertime.
Two-thirds of the project was funded with $4.1 million in bonding dollars allocated last year by the state Legislature.
"(The station) really is critical to the mission of the College of Biological Sciences, one of our premier colleges at the university," said U of M President Eric Kaler.
Kaler visited Itasca Friday as he and others celebrated the groundbreaking of the project in an evening ceremony. Prior to the celebration, Kaler toured the Mississippi Headwaters, visited with students and faculty and toured the biological station.
The station, Kaler said, offers a "unique experience" for students enrolled in biological studies as it hosts their orientation and, later, serves as a field station for their research and graduate studies.
An indoor laboratory is basically the same no matter where you go, Kaler said, but the biological station is unique because it is located within Itasca State Park, which was preserved by the state Legislature in 1891.
Improvements at the station will allow the station to host cohorts for research and workshops.
"It will help people learn more about Minnesota," Kaler said.
The College of Biological Sciences buses all of its freshmen to the station in July for orientation, called Nature of Life. In four days, the "boot camp" introduces students not only to the station, but to the College and its expectations.
The station can't hold all 500 freshmen at once, said Bob Elde, the dean of the College of Biological Studies, so they come up in groups of 100.
In four days, they meet their classmates and professors and get acclimated with one another. They take their first college course and undergo their first exam.
Elde said the College of Biological Studies had 7,100 freshmen applications this year. With approximately 16 applicants for every available spot, entrance into the College is competitive.
"We're far and away the most competitive college at the University of Minnesota," he said.
The students, used to earning A's and B's in high school, do not immediately meet university standards. Elde said the mean score on the first exam is usually between 63 and 65 percent, a D.
"This is a wakeup call for them," he said.
In that, the biological station can serve as an educational tool. Elde said he often uses the Mississippi River as an analogy for students struggling with their exam scores.
Just as the baby Mississippi trickles out of Lake Itasca to grow into a flourishing, mighty river, the students, too, will mature and develop.
"This is totally unique," Elde said of the biological station. "This is our signature."