Students exercising at the University of Minnesota Recreation Center might be surprised to hear that they are working out in a national park.
A new program created this spring called the Gopher Ranger program has been developed to connect students with the land. The University sits on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
The MNRRA has five student-interns working on general projects such as trail planning as well as custom capstone projects and wildlife preservation. With so much student involvement, MNRRA park ranger Dave Wiggins said he and his colleagues see a new light on issues that they might have missed.
“Student work is often less focused on getting a specific job done and more focused on pushing the envelope and imagining the range of opportunities that might exist,” Wiggins said.
One of those projects comes from a group of five landscape architecture seniors as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which funds undergraduate research projects.
The group of students developed and created 30 innovative changes to the Mississippi riverfront to engage residents of Dinkytown and St. Anthony Main with the body of water in their backyards.
The project, called “Imagining the Mississippi: 30 Ways to Transform the Riverfront,” is scheduled to go on display at the Mill City Museum for a month starting in late June.
The program provides students with internships, research opportunities, immersive classroom lessons and future jobs ranging from landscape architecture to education theory for the park’s summer camps.
The idea came from Wiggins and longtime friend Pat Nunnally, coordinator for the University Institute on the Environment River Life program.
“We’re understanding that this is a real opportunity as a national park to take advantage of what no other national park has: a university within its boundary,” Wiggins said.
The program is synergistic; it gives students access to the park’s resources and rangers and the park access to the University’s research and student ideas.
For classroom opportunities, the University offers Landscape Architecture 3514: Making the Mississippi, in which Nunnally’s students propose designs at four spots that connect the river to the community using theories they have been working on in class.
This semester’s class of 45 students will pitch and present their projects to MNRRA rangers and their partners Monday and Wednesday to get feedback regarding their ideas and connect with people actually working in the field.
Some of the proposed projects include making the Northern Pacific Bridge No. 9, the pedestrian bridge connecting the East and West banks, into a double-decker bridge to bring people closer to the water. The students also developed plans to turn the cove area of St. Anthony Main into a more interactive area for people to swim with rafts and include new bridges and stepping stones.
Because of the nature of the Mississippi River, Nunnally said he and Wiggins wanted to make the river into a location for a lab and test site for students studying particular subjects related to the area.
“We’re on one of the great rivers of the world. The Mississippi is a big deal,” Nunnally said. “It shouldn’t just be something you slug across on your way to the West Bank.”
While the group members said they didn’t create all of the ideas to necessarily fit a realistic budget, that wasn’t the point of the project.
“It’s a community effort trying to engage policymakers and local leaders in the process as a way to spark their imaginations of what some funding could actually create,” said Dan Carlson, one of the group’s members.