Course Instructors

Mary Baldwin EBL Instructors: Knowledge, Experience, and Leadership

The outstanding team of faculty at Mary Baldwin University’s Environment-Based Learning (EBL) program is led by Tamra Willis, a national leader in the field of “natural” teaching.

We believe that educators who utilize local resources to help teach core subjects become exemplary teachers.


Dr. Tom Benzing has the perfect combination of experience and expertise for teaching the EBL course ED619: Trout in the Classroom. Dr. Benzing has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Chemistry, with a Ph.D. in Soil Sciences/ Environmental Toxicology. In additional to the adjunct position at Mary Baldwin, Dr. Benzing is a full-time Professor in the ISAT program at James Madison University.  An avid trout fisherman and active member of Trout Unlimited, Tom also has experience supporting K-12 classroom teachers as they implement Trout in the Classroom programs at their schools (including his daughter’s school). With interests in chemical hydrology, river and stream water quality, and trout conservation and habitat restoration, Dr. Benzing brings together all of the important aspects of a quality Trout in the Classroom program. His experience working with teachers is evident in his emphasis on effective teaching strategies and K-12 content in all subjects related to trout and stream quality.


Mary Baldwin University EBL program is proud to have Donald Davis, nationally-known and award winning storyteller, as our instructor for ED621: Storytelling: A Pathway to Curriculum Integration. Donald is a former Chairperson of the Board of Directors for the National Storytelling Association and is well-known for his stories connecting life experiences with culture and environment, in particular the mountains of Appalachia. A prolific author of books for children and adults, publisher of numerous audio-recordings, and presenter at the Smithsonian, Donald’s awards include the Circle of Excellence award from the National Storytelling Network and the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Popular Paperback for Young Adults Award. Many have attended Donald’s storytelling events, but few have had the privilege of attending a week-long course where Donald teachers a strategy he calls “writing as a second language.” Donald notes that the oral tradition of storytelling is important to humans, as it is our “natural” way to communicate. Donald believes that learning to tell good stories is the most effective way to learn to write good stories and that we as educators often jump into the writing before our students understand the skill. In the graduate course, Donald teaches how to work with K-12 students (and others) to effectively tell their own stories and with that, better understand how to write their own stories.


As a former middle school science teacher and current nature artist, Betty Gatewood brings true applied experience to the EBL program. She is the teaching partner with Tom Benzing for the EBL course ED619: Trout in the Classroom and is involved in the Appalachian Trail program and Mary Baldwin course ED629: A Trail to Every Classroom and in ED616: Nature Journaling. Betty has broad experiences sharing her love of nature with K-12 students and adults alike; she has worked as a state park environmental educator, a museum interpreter, a classroom teacher for almost 20 years, and the Mary Baldwin University teacher-in-residence as part of a NOAA supported EBL project for 7 years. Currently, Betty works as an interpretive park ranger in Shenandoah National Park presenting public programs and developing park curriculum on climate change and the endangered Shenandoah salamander. Betty has incredible skills as an artist of nature, keeping extensive journals and specializing in native plant watercolors. Her botanical illustrations have been published in the Appalachian Trail Journeys magazine, and have been cover art for Virginia’s Mountain Treasures and the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year brochures for 2009 and 2013. She has displayed her art at public libraries, the R. R. Smith Center for History and Art in Staunton, and Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Gardens.


Can math concepts really be connected to nature studies in a meaningful way?Is it possible to go beyond simple applications and use the environment to teach conceptual aspects of math and even to use the garden for math practice? Dr. Verne Leininger teaches our ED617: Math in the Garden course and we think you will agree that he has the qualifications to make it happen. With a Ph.D. in mathematics, Dr. Leininger is an adjunct professor of Math Education in the GTE program at Mary Baldwin University and an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Bridgewater College. He has a talent for helping students, including teachers, truly understand math concepts and shares wonderful strategies for teaching math to K-12 students. In addition, Vern has a love of the outdoors, has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, and now lives on a farm where he raises heritage chickens and plants a large garden each summer. His ability to bring together knowledge of math and love for the outdoors will make you want to do the same. What a wonderful way to turn your students onto mathematics!


The Mary Baldwin EBL program is honored to have National Distinguished Principal, Dr. Dana McCauley, as instructor for the ED628: Reading on the River course. With an Ed.D. in Education, Dr. McCauley is principal and teacher at Crellin Elementary school in Garrett County Maryland, a school that presents an incredibly effective model of the Environment-Based Learning approach. Dr. McCauley has led and coordinated an instructional program at the school that guides students to achieve and sustain academic success, including greater awareness of their impact on the environment. Called the “Corps of Discovery”, the students utilize and work with the community as they engage in meaningful, problem-based learning opportunities. Located in a low-socioeconomic community, the school has been recognized as the National Title 1 Distinguished School in 2011, a Maryland Green School, and winner of the National Intel Math award in 2010. With a deep understanding of effective, content driven, environment-based education, Dana is a force in the school reform effort. Her toolkit of reading strategies is huge and her love of the environment is contagious; she outstandingly brings these together during the Reading on the River course.


Dr. Michael Pelton is often called the “bear man” for his years of research on bear species around the world. He spent his career helping students develop environment-based research projects, so he brings a lifetime of experience to the course ED618: Natural Research: Plant and Animal Studies in the Outdoors. With a Ph.D. in Wildlife Science, Mike is adjunct professor in the Mary Baldwin Graduate Teacher Education program and Professor Emeritus from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. While in Tennessee, he directed the Smoky Mountain black bear study, the longest study of any bear species in the world. In 2012, he was honored by an international organization, The Wildlife Society, with the prestigious Caesar Kleberg Award for Applied Wildlife Research. Mike has taught in numerous programs, including natural history workshops for middle and high school students. During his career, he chaired the research projects of 93 graduate students, so he knows how to motivate students to think through and then conduct research studies in nature. The Natural Research course introduces K-12 educators to research and investigation ideas/methods/strategies, including studies of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, insects, plants, soils, and streams/water quality.


We feel very privileged to have the author of How to Keep a Naturalists Notebook as the instructor for our EBL course, ED616: Nature Journaling across the Curriculum. Dr. Susan Tomlinson has the perfect credentials for teaching this course; she is an artist, naturalist, scientist, teacher and writer with a B.F.A. in art and M.S and Ph.D. in Geology. In addition to teaching the Nature Journaling course as an adjunct professor at Mary Baldwin, Dr. Tomlinson is Director and Associate Professor of the Natural History and Humanities Honors Program at Texas Tech University. Her program focus is interdisciplinary scholarship that cuts across art, literature, history, philosophy, and science, with a particular interest in environmental and sustainability studies. She has won numerous honors, including an Excellence in Teaching award and Editor’s Choice Award from Isotope, a literary magazine devoted to science and nature writing. Susan will help you become comfortable with drawing what you observe, even if you are not artistically inclined. Her enthusiasm for recording and reflecting what you see and feel through journaling will spread to your K-12 students and others.


An associate professor in the Graduate Teacher Education Program at Mary Baldwin, Dr. Tamra Willis directs the Environment-Based Learning program (EBL) for the Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree and teaches several courses in the EBL program: IN626 Environment-Based Learning, IN634 The Intersection of Life and Land, and ED620 The Outdoor Classroom. She also works to support EBL course professors in the summer and teaches IN605: Inquiry in the Natural Science for the Master of Teaching (MAT) program. During her 25 years in the field of education, Tamra has served as an elementary classroom teacher, science coordinator, and environmental educator. As a classroom teacher, she loved taking her students outdoors for lessons that integrated standards-based content with nature studies. In addition, she has conducted research on elementary teachers who include schoolyard habitats as a focus of their curriculum. Dr. Willis holds a BS in Elementary Education, an MEd in Middle Grades Education, and a PhD in Natural Science Education and Leadership. She has extensive experience directing grant-funded projects involving partnerships between Mary Baldwin, area school divisions, natural resource agencies, and industries. The projects provide professional development for teachers and support their efforts to use the natural environment and local issues as the foundation for curriculum integration. She is also co-editor of the Natural Teachers Network newsletter for the Children and Nature Network.


Dr. Tamra Willis
Program Director for Environment-Based Learning (EBL),
Mary Baldwin Associate Professor, College of Education