Hands-On Research at Western State Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory

Forget your typical burners and beakers in dark, cramped labs. Western offers thousands of acres of pristine mountain landscape to explore and study: the Rocky Mountains are your laboratory.

By Barry Eitel

What comes to mind when thinking about the average research facility at an average university? Burners and beakers, of course, and several stories of labs and classrooms. How about thousands of acres of pristine mountain landscape to explore and study? It might sound like an image slapped on a postcard, but at Western State Colorado University, the Rocky Mountains are your laboratory.

The ecology and geology are incredibly diverse in the mountains that envelop Western State Colorado University’s campus in Gunnison. Environments range from high alpine peaks to startling deep canyons, including Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This ecological variety makes for an array of exciting research opportunities for Western’s students.

In fact, public lands make up roughly 85 percent of the area that surrounds Western.

Hands-On Research at Western State Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory
Government groups including the Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, National Forest Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife all have offices nearby. Western students help manage environmental projects led by these organizations and others in one of the most fascinating, hands-on laboratories in the world.

Students have gone on to start farms and have ventured as far as Costa Rica and Kenya to launch environmental organizations. The possibilities don’t end with environmental studies, though. Other notable alumni have gone on to become writers, including an editor of Backcountry magazine who brought a deep ecological focus to the backcountry skiing publication.

Western's Environment and Sustainability program is a leading program for those who want outdoor careers and who ask crucial questions regarding humanity’s place in nature, an issue that will only be more relevant in the years to come.

Western’s rich locale is purposefully integrated into its science programs not only to give students access to a fantastic outdoor laboratory, but to give them an opportunity to help conserve it. 

One popular member of Western’s biology department is Dr. Kevin Alexander, a biologist who specializes in aquatic invertebrates. “I like to think I'm a pretty good generalist,” Alexander said. “I do a lot with biological diversity, water quality, conservation easements and riparian biology along rivers and streams.”

For the past 12 years, he has led a team of undergraduates over the summer to track and document the extremely rare Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, a tiny, endangered insect native to the high peaks of the San Juan Range of the Rockies in southwest Colorado. 

While working on this hands-on research, the students scramble over rocks and camp as high as 12,500 feet in the Rockies. Alexander and his assistants have fleshed out much of the knowledge regarding this species, which the government deemed endangered in 1991.

Not only do the students look out for butterflies, but they also log sightings of other threatened and endangered wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain goats and ptarmigan (a rarely seen alpine bird in the grouse family).

Western is a terrific choice for students who love the outdoors, but is also great for those who want to fight to protect the environment. With a laboratory that includes a mountain range, it offers a striking diversity of opportunities in multiple disciplines.

Ready to experience it yourself? Click here to explore our virtual tour or schedule a visit. 

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Date: 
Tuesday, October 20, 2015 - 5:45pm