The University of Lethbridge’s Westcastle Field Station was, by all accounts, an untapped resource. It made perfect sense then when Shell Canada, a world leader in resource extraction, served as the catalyst for a redevelopment project that has created opportunities for expanded research, student training and community outreach initiatives for years to come.

The new Westcastle Field Station now fully represents the ideal of the University’s founders, who leased the five-acre tract of land at the foot of the Rocky Mountains when the U of L was just in its infancy. Their prescient thinking, to fully utilize the University’s unique geographic setting and establish a base for research activities and environmental stewardship in one of the world’s most pristine settings, can now be fully realized.

“There was always the view that we really wanted to improve this facility so that we could make the most of its outstanding location and the research opportunities it provided,” says Dr. Stewart Rood, a faculty member in the Department of Biology. “Now we have a field station that will allow for those activities.”

Established in the University’s initial days, the original field station was constructed in 1970 on a five-acre parcel of land in Castle Provincial Park, just five kilometres from Castle Mountain Ski Resort. It began with a pre-fabricated wood cabin with adjacent wooden pads for canvas tents that were meant to serve as dormitories.

Over the years, safety (bears aren’t easily deterred by canvas) and practicality (generators were replaced with line electricity) led to a number of changes to the site. An ATCO-style trailer was added as a lab to free up dorm space in the cabin and eventually, various trailers and campers made their way on-site to meet space demands — but they were all seen as stop-gap measures.

“We saw an opportunity to be involved in creating long-term, sustainable infrastructure that would benefit both the community in and around Waterton and also those who conduct research in the Castle,” says Ryan C. Smith, senior environmental planner with Shell Canada. “These types of opportunities are very important to us.”

With help from a $100,000 Shell Canada donation, the field station now features a second building (Shell Dormitory), accommodates 23 beds and three bathrooms, an expanded kitchen facility, increased lab space, exterior storage, new water storage, a fire-alarm system and better road access. The end result is a station that can now host numerous students and researchers and has the capacity for community outreach initiatives.

“We’ve been running field courses in geography, environmental science and biology that were dispersed and scattered around because we had no core facility,” says Rood. “Now we have a viable field station in a prime and accessible location.”

It is a base that lends itself to creating meaningful learning experiences for students.

“If you asked my students a decade after they graduate what they remember, a high proportion of them will remember the field experiences,” says Rood. “Ironically, it’s a very inefficient way to get content across. It’s much easier to present bullet points on a screen in a classroom but those lessons don’t become embedded in the students, they don’t really become a part of who they are. To actually go out and see something and discover its natural place is invaluable.”