Iowa Lakeside Lab


Students all over the state of Iowa – and beyond – can immerse themselves in the study of natural sciences at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on the shore of West Okoboji Lake. The 100-year-old, 147-acre field camp is filled with outdoor classrooms and laboratories, and it provides housing and dining facilities for faculty, students, and visitors who take advantage of the area’s boundless natural environment.


I visited Lakeside this week and was tremendously impressed by the work that’s going on up there: internationally respected study of the ecology and systematics of diatoms (a type of algae or phytoplankton), water-quality research, archaeological digs, prairie restoration, conservation biology, and more.




I stayed in a fairly comfortable motel-style room on the property; many of the students are housed in cottages and primitive cabins (i.e., no bathrooms). Most of the laboratories are in charming stone structures built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and surrounded by prairie plants (center photo above). A few additional laboratory facilities were built in the 1960s and ’70s; the modern Haitt Building opened in 1998 and houses the water quality laboratory, administrative offices, and classrooms. A comfortable dining hall (shown above, as we approached from the water) provides meals and gathering space.


Most of the time I was at the lab I felt very much immersed in another world: a world of science and nature, surrounded by the land and water of Iowa’s early heritage. The Iowa Great Lakes were created by glaciers and are unique in the state of Iowa. Anyone who’s ever visited the Okoboji area knows its shores have been developed and developed and developed until there’s precious little public land, save for a few small parks. Iowa Lakeside Lab is the only large undeveloped land on the lakefront, and that makes it pretty special.


My visit to Lakeside was for a story I’m working on for VISIONS, the Iowa State University alumni magazine. Iowa State has had a long connection to Iowa Lakeside Lab, a Regents Resource Center – meaning it’s a part of the Regents Universities of ISU, University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa. All three flags fly in the property, and I met students from all three schools as well as faculty from Iowa State and the University of Iowa, although there were faculty and students from outside the system as well.





During the three days I was there, I sat in on classes, observed field work, and went out on the lake with students studying algae, soils, ornithology, and archaeology. I watched storms roll in from the west, scuttling plans to collect algae samples and turning the archaeology dig site into mud. I went to a research site in a prairie, and I observed the GLEON buoy, which monitors water quality and weather data every 10 minutes, linking data from West Okoboji with lakes around the world. I got to watch twin fawns chasing each other in the early-morning light and checked in on a rabbit nest filled with baby bunnies (below).


Lakeside Lab is primarily a summer place, with university courses offered from May to August. During the school year Lakeside offers environmental education programs for students in K-12 schools, and education is also available for the general public. This week I attended a lecture on climate change titled “Weather Whiplash,” which was well attended by members of the local community. Young children were there attending a summer program called Frog Camp, and two artists and one writer were also in residence for the summer.

Conferences and meetings are held at Lakeside year-round, although space is somewhat limited because many of the labs and housing units are unheated. Iowa Lakeside Lab is located in northwest Iowa about 200 miles from both Des Moines and Omaha, on the west side of West Okoboji Lake along Hwy. 86.


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