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Great Lakes Article:

Institute puts students on front lines of science
NRRI: Students experience hands-on learning while conducting research.
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," Fosnacht said.

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 training simulations.

"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, Minn.

"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 forests.

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 tools.

"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 biology."

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.

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