Institute puts students on front lines
NRRI: Students experience hands-on learning while conducting
By Steve Kuchera
Duluth News Tribune
Published September 20, 2005
Of all the Natural Resources Research Institute's missions,
education probably receives the least attention.
But quietly, the institute is reaching a number of students
through classes at UMD, Web-based educational efforts
and research opportunities.
Of the 139 researchers working at NRRI,21 are students.
"We employ a variety of students on our projects,
giving them a real hands-on learning opportunity,"
NRRI Director Michael Lalich said.
The institute's Center for Applied Research and Technology
Development can provide students a key opportunity: conduct
industrial research that closely resembles what happens
at real businesses.
"People will get to know what manufacturers really
want in their research programs," department director
Donald Fosnacht said. "It's pretty important to give
that prospective. We have time lines we have to hit; we
have financial targets we have to achieve."
When the institute developed a 480-square-foot, two-bedroom
house that can be assembled in about four hours to provide
emergency housing, several students worked hand-in-hand
with researchers to refine the design and build the prototype.
"We routinely do that, especially in our wood products
area, so they really get to work hands-on with the researchers,"
While a UMD student, Tony Pike helped take the rapid
response house from a small model to a full-sized unit,
doing much of the engineering and CAD work. He also helped
build the prototype.
The house was only one of three projects Pike was involved
with during his two years at NRRI. He also designed and
built a specialized drill, and developed two manufacturing
"I worked a lot on each of these projects, and each
gave me experience in different engineering areas,"
said Pike, who graduated from UMD in May with a bachelor
of science degree in mechanical and industrial engineering.
He's now an engineer for Andersen Windows in Bayport,
"NRRI not only gave me excellent preparation and
experience for an engineering career, but also gave me
insight as to which direction I wanted to go after graduation,"
he said. "I would not be in the position today if
it wasn't for my experience at NRRI."
Students also work with researchers, and as researchers,
at the institute's Center for Water and the Environment.
On average, there are eight to 10 graduate students working
at the center on various projects, said Gerald Niemi,
the center's director.
The center is conducting research on lynx, snowshoe hare,
forest birds, Great Lakes wetlands, lakes and waste management.
NRRI researcher Cindy Hale earned both her master's and
doctorate degrees while working at the institute. In the
early 1990s, she completed her masters in forest ecology,
comparing old-growth forests to mature, managed hardwood
Last year, she completed her doctorate, researching the
effect of exotic earthworms on understory plant communities
in hardwood forests.
Hale credits other NRRI researchers for teaching her
much of what she knows.
"I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today if it
wasn't for all the people here," she said. "People
really interact with one another. There's a lot of cross
pollination between the bird people and the fish people
and water people. It is a very interesting and dynamic
place to be."
While working on her doctorate, Hale employed her interest
and background in environmental education, developing
Minnesota Worm Watch. The Worm Watch Web site teaches
students about the impacts of exotic earthworms. It helps
scientists by giving students the information and guidance
to conduct and report their own earthworm surveys.
The Worm Watch Web site illustrates some of the innovative
ways the NRRI is involved in educational efforts reaching
beyond the institute and the University of Minnesota.
"Some of our products have a very interesting educational
aspect to them," Lalich said, citing the Water on
the Web effort, which helps college and high school students
understand environmental problems using data from lakes
and rivers nationwide and Geographic Information System
"It's a hands-on learning opportunity I didn't have
in college," Lalich said.
In addition to Worm Watch and her research, Hale is teaching
an ecology lab at UMD and an introduction to environmental
science course at Lake Superior College.
"Most of the scientists here are involved in some
teaching of undergraduate and graduate course," Niemi
said. "For example, I teach ornithology and conservation
Other courses include wetlands ecology, landscape ecology,
forest ecology and one on monitoring lakes and streams.
Niemi estimates his staff teaches eight to 10 courses
on a regular basis.
"It's an important part we play -- supporting students
and teaching," he said.