Educator is helping create a sustainable future


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 Dorothy McLeer, UM-Dearborn’s interpretive naturalist.

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.”

UM-Dearborn's interpretive naturalist Dorothy McLeer, right, chats with student naturalist Valerie Osowski in the campus' rain garden. (Photo by Sarah Tuxbury, UM-Dearborn)
UM-Dearborn’s interpretive naturalist Dorothy McLeer, right, chats with student naturalist Valerie Osowski in the campus’ rain garden. (Photo by Sarah Tuxbury, UM-Dearborn)

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,” said McLeer, the program manager in Biological Sciences at UM-Dearborn.

“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 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 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 U-M 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 discovered the environmental education field when she attended a Detroit Audubon awards event and spoke with awardee William B. Stapp. (Photo by Sarah Tuxbury, UM-Dearborn)
McLeer discovered the environmental education field when she attended a Detroit Audubon awards event and spoke with awardee William B. Stapp. (Photo by Sarah Tuxbury, UM-Dearborn)

McLeer learned about the UM-Dearborn environmental studies program started by Orin Gelderloos, professor emeritus of biology and environmental studies, 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.

Just in 2023, more than 4,500 K-12 school children have attended programs McLeer helped run. After one tour, a third-grader 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 members of 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.

Griffin Bray is a recent UM-Dearborn graduate who was 9 years old when he met McLeer and participated in the Environmental Interpretation course’s Young Naturalist Program in the mid-2000s.

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Not only does Bray plan to enter the field of professional naturalist educators, but he nominated McLeer for the National Association for Interpretation’s Distinguished Professional Interpreter Award. The award is presented to a respected interpreter who has demonstrated an impact in the field, and McLeer was named the NAI 2023 Distinguished Professional Interpreter for the Great Lakes region.

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 their doors.

“I have been so fortunate to have colleagues who are also friends, and are dedicated and passionate about what we do,” she said. “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.”


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