How a campus educator is helping create a sustainable future

June 26, 2023

Environmental Interpretive Naturalist Dorothy McLeer, who’s taught on campus for 30 years, is honored by the National Association for Interpretation for her environmental education efforts.

Photo of EIC staff member Dorothy McLeer and student naturalist Valerie Osowski.
Photo of UM-Dearborn's Interpretive Naturalist Dorothy McLeer, right, with student naturalist Valerie Osowski in campus' rain garden. Photos/Sarah Tuxbury

Let me tell you about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. Or rather, you should hear about these and the unique importance each plays in the world from UM-Dearborn’s Interpretive Naturalist Dorothy McLeer.

Not only does McLeer have 30 years experience, she was also recently honored for her teaching talent by the National Association for Interpretation. McLeer is the NAI 2023 Distinguished Professional Interpreter for the Great Lakes region. The professional award is presented to a respected interpreter who has demonstrated an impact in the field.

Taking groups on guided tours around UM-Dearborn’s trails, McLeer pulls out all the creative stops to help people retain information. She sings songs. She’s got jokes. She makes word associations. McLeer does whatever it takes to connect people with new information.

For example, here’s how she helps learners know what a radula is: “A radula is like a tongue. Mollusks use it to help them get food, like algae, by scraping things. When snails use theirs, they are like the vacuum cleaners of the pond — and that’s pretty rad.”

Dorothy Mcleer
Dorothy McLeer

McLeer also has participants touch tree bark and make observations. They search for wildlife tracks and guess what animal may have made them. They listen and look for birds. Interpretive  techniques are based on revelation. “Brain-based research shows that If you are able to use your senses and connect new knowledge to things you already know, it helps you make connections in a way that ties in experience and emotion,” McLeer said. “Relating information to students’ lives so there is meaning to the new information, makes it relevant to their lives. Emotional connections are stored in the brain’s long-term memory.”

McLeer’s such a natural (pun intended) that it seems like she always knew this was the right path for her. But she said she didn’t discover the environmental education field until she was an adult in her 30s. Working in retail and studying at Oakland Community College to be a teacher, she attended a Detroit Audubon awards event — fate would have it that she unknowingly sat at the same table as awardee William B. Stapp, the UM-Ann Arbor professor emeritus who is considered the founder of environmental education.

“I told him that I was studying to be a teacher and hoped I could teach science. Then he put two words together that I never heard in a sentence: environmental education. He explained to me what it was. It was a light that went on for me,” said McLeer, who said the field places an importance on educating all ages about their environment in an effort to develop a respect for nature and preservation. “That conversation was on a Saturday night. On Monday, I was in my school counselor's office changing my plans.”

McLeer learned about the UM-Dearborn environmental studies program started by Professor Orin Gelderloos and transferred. She first worked as a student naturalist and then became a full-time staff member after graduation. McLeer has since earned her graduate degree, along with publishing chapters in books, giving public lectures, teaching college classes and leading educational programs around the campus’ 120-acre Environmental Study Area.

During 2023 alone, more than 4500 K-12 school children have attended programs McLeer helped run. After a tour on May 22, third grader Joey from St. Pius Catholic School drew a picture of cattails, thanked McLeer for the fun walk and even pledged to become a future Wolverine. He wrote, “I already wanted to go to UM-Dearborn and now I will definitely go.”

McLeer said helping kids explore the outdoors is a highlight in her role. With climate concerns and species extinction, McLeer said it’s important that the next generation see how their actions can impact the world around them. To help do that, McLeer also inspires minds in her UM-Dearborn college classroom to find entertaining and efficient methods that blend science and education so that future educators can bring forth that awareness.

Alum Griffin Bray is part of the upcoming generation of professional naturalist educators. He met McLeer when he was nine years old as a participant in the EIC’s Young Naturalist Program in the mid-2000s. McLeer led many of his adventure-filled sessions.

He’s the one who nominated McLeer for the Distinguished Professional Interpreter Award.

Young Naturalist Program
Griffin Bray leading an EIC tour in a 2019 file photo

As a child, Bray didn’t recall her name exactly, but he held on to the lessons learned from McLeer and a love of UM-Dearborn’s campus trails stayed with him. The 2020 UM-Dearborn graduate earned his NAI-certified interpretive guide credential through McLeer’s Environmental Interpretation course as an undergrad and is now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Inspired by his former teacher, Bray said, “She’s helped shape who I am today. As an environmental interpreter, I am able to work not only with the natural environment, but also with the community to engage people with their surroundings, provoke a deeper connection to the place, and provide them with a way to understand the natural world on their own terms.”

Joining an EIC team meeting via Zoom in the spring, Bray shared the award news. McLeer said she was shocked and delighted — both to see Bray and to learn about the award.

Three decades into her career, McLeer said having one of her students going into the field nominate her was a “full-circle moment” that told her that she’s on the right path — a path filled with birds, bees, flowers and trees. And one that is educating people to take a moment and notice what’s happening right outside of their doors.

“I have been so fortunate to have colleagues who are also friends, and are dedicated and passionate about what we do. For the last 30 years I’ve done something that has meaning — not just for me or the people that I am lucky to encounter, but meaning for where we live. It’s something that I take very seriously, but I have a heck of a good time doing it.”

Text by Sarah Tuxbury.