Mississippi Headwaters
Mississippi Headwaters

Itasca Neurobiology Course

Graduate Program in Neuroscience

University of Minnesota

Nowhere else in the country can you walk along the shores of a pristine lake, take in a startling view of a pileated woodpecker and smell the fragrance of the Minnesota ladyslipper, and then sit down at an experimental station in which you evaluate the generation of memory traces in a hippocampal slice, explore the synaptic organization of the leech ganglion, or monitor single channel currents in cells.

In 1986, the Graduate Program in Neuroscience was a newly formed amalgamation of a half dozen bits and pieces of various graduate programs, and it needed a clear identity. Itasca seemed to some an improbable identity medium, located over 200 miles north of campus in a state park established to save the red pine forest. The 5-week long neuroscience lab course at Itasca was designed on the Woods Hole model, a kind of "boot camp" for students entering the Neuroscience PhD program.

Course Details

  • All students in the graduate program are required to take the course.
  • It occurs in July and is the first course in the curriculum. The core curriculum begins in September.
  • There is a different module each week for 5 weeks. Each module is based on a different experimental model used in neurobiology.
  • Each module is taught by 2-3 faculty; postdocs and senior graduate students assist in some modules.
  • Curriculum
    Each year, the course is compose of 5 modules out of 7 that have been designed.

    Neuroscience at Itasca
    The University of Minnesota Biological Station at Itasca State Park is the site for the laboratory course.

    What educational purpose does this element serve?

  • Our diverse student body acquires similar laboratory skills before they begin their laboratory rotations in the Fall.
  • Different faculty members rotate each week, providing students an array of faculty interests and expertise to interact with on both a scientific and personal level.
  • Students live and work together throughout the course, providing a unique opportunity to interact in an intimate manner.
  • At Itasca, strong bonds are formed between students and faculty both in and out of the lab. Indeed, sometimes the best discussions occur over the breakfast table or during canoe excursions on the lake.

    What tells us this works?

  • 90% of students agreed that the Itasca course enhanced their interaction with faculty and 75% agreed that peer bonding occurred (2000 Student Survey).
  • Peer bondimg carries over into the formation of study groups that correlate with success in the core curriculum.
  • Faculty have designed more modules than can be offered in a 5 week course.
  • Other programs at the University have created similar courses.

  • Bonding at Itasca

    In the evenings, the 6:00 dinner bell at the field station signals the end of the day's experiment. A day may end with exploration of the breathtaking park by bike or canoe, an energetic volleyball game, relaxation and conversation around a bonfire, or gazing at the Perseus meteor shower or Northern Lights. Students have also returned to the laboratory after dinner to continue their scientific explorations!

    Reflection from a faculty member

    My experience as director of the Itasca program for 10 years gave me unique insight into its role in our graduate education. In addition to providing the important "cohort bonding" that I believe is essential for an interdisciplinary graduate program, it introduced neuroscience with a hands-on approach that encouraged students to explore ideas with experimental models. As a result many students and some faculty formed collaborative working relationships that began at Itasca and continued throughout their graduate and even post-graduate careers. --Richard Poppele, Professor, Department of Neuroscience

    Reflection from a student

    The Itasca course introduced me to an array of themes studied by neuroscientists and a range of techniques used to understand the field of neuroscience. I was taught to develop hypotheses, design experimental paradigms, interpret data, and communicate findings. I used these skills to develop my thesis project. One of the most important aspects of the Itasca program is that it enabled me to cultivate relationships with current and future researchers. By being removed from the distractions of everyday life, it encouraged me to focus not only on neuroscience, but on how to collaborate with others in the scientific community. ---Lyric Jorgenson, entered 2000

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