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Nature of Life students look up through binoculars.

Nature of Life attendees participate in a field session at the U's Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.

Biology freshmen dive into college life at Lake Itasca

By Rick Moore

July 18, 2006

Students entering the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences (CBS) in the fall are beginning their academic journey this month at Itasca State Park--where the Mississippi River starts its journey--at Nature of Life, a unique program to help freshmen make a successful transition to college life.

Over a span of two weeks, each of the college's 380 entering freshmen will attend a three-day session at Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories--a University field research station in Itasca State Park--to get acquainted with each other, the faculty, the college, and the University. Students transferring from community colleges are also invited to participate.

"We created this program to welcome students to our community and to prepare them for academic and social success at the University of Minnesota," says Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. "Nature of Life is a little like summer camp and a little like boot camp. It's the only program of its kind in the United States."

Nature of Life helps students form relationships with their peers and with faculty. It also provides a rigorous introduction to biology. Hands-on, small-group seminars explore various aspects of the biological sciences including field biology, molecular and cellular biology, and genetics and cell biology.

Those seminars touch on the nature of life. But other sessions, led by peer mentors, touch on the nature of college life, covering topics such as survival skills, course planning, and research opportunities in biology. There is a final exam on the scientific portion of the program, and once school starts in the fall, students complete their two-credit Nature of Life experience with follow-up assignments like interviewing a faculty member, attending various events, and writing reflective essays and an academic plan for themselves.

For students, the program goes a long way toward establishing new friendships. "It was amazing how many people I recognized the first week of school, and I've heard a lot of people say the same thing," said CBS student Madeline Teisberg after completing her Nature of Life experience two years ago.

Christina Yi, a sophomore studying microbiology, participated in the program last summer and is returning this year to help out as a peer mentor. She also has fond memories of her experience with Nature of Life.

"I was really nervous about being a freshman and meeting people, and it helped me to get to know people who would be in my classes," she says. "We [did] these mini classes where you split into groups, and basically, you spend a lot of time with those people."

Former CBS student Ashley Gray is the program coordinator this summer. Gray has completed her undergraduate studies and is pursuing a doctoral degree at the University's College of Pharmacy.

"Nature of Life was a very motivating experience for me," she says. "It gave me lots of personal connections, a sense of pride in the college and an awareness of the academic standards. When I started school in the fall I knew I was in a good place and I was prepared to succeed. I don't think I would have done as well without it. It helps you feel more comfortable, but it gives you the push you need to get out of your comfort zone and try new experiences."

For a further sense of the Nature of Life experience, watch the three-minute Nature of Life video.