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Omaha Magazine

Amy Leising Inspires Learning at Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium

Oct 01, 2021 01:22PM ● By Karen Campbell
Woman in teal shirt in front of shark statue

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Amy Leising saw anemones for the first time on her honeymoon to the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic National Park “ages and ages ago.”

“There were kids on the beach and I was running along, tickling the anemones, and I kept saying, ‘oh my gosh, you have to come see this!’ We were perfect strangers and I am sure their parents thought I was crazy.”

From as far back as she can remember, Leising’s love of all things outdoors was simply part of her being. Growing up on a cattle farm in Cook, Nebraska, (“not to be confused with the much larger McCook, Nebraska,” she said with a laugh), Leising spent countless hours outdoors. Animals, including “a million” barn cats, dogs, geese, chickens, and, of course, cattle, bustled around the farmland and property.  

Leising fondly remembers packing a lunch and heading out to the pasture, where she and her brother would spend entire days digging rocks, looking for fossils, gathering mulberries, and generally “making a mess of ourselves.”

“Being outdoors was just a normal thing and, to me, that is where the exciting and cool things were,” she said, “My grandmother also used to take me with her to collect walnuts, wild mushrooms, and berries.” 

Leising earned a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and said a career in teaching was never part of her original plan.

It was through her job as a naturalist for the City of Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department at Pioneer’s Park Nature Center that Leising discovered her love of teaching. During her time as a naturalist, she worked as a camp counselor, led educational interpretive tours for all ages and guided tours for elementary schools, and led bird-watching groups. She even had a traveling puppet show to educate elementary children in Lincoln schools about conservation. 

“I loved my job at the nature center and the more I did with education there, the more I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” Leising said. 

“Getting people out with their hands on things, I think, is where I really found the passion for education,” Leising said. “Growing up, I had those experiences and that was my normal everyday life.”

Leising then earned her master’s degree in secondary education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and became a certified biology teacher. She taught at Bryan High School for 10 years before moving to the career center at Omaha Public Schools, where she teaches in Zoo Academy. 

Zoo Academy, founded in 1996 and fully established in 2009, is an educational partnership between Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and school districts around the area. As a Zoo Academy instructor, Leising teaches veterinarian science, environmental science, and zoo research, and she co-teaches a zoo operations course.

“No matter a student’s background or initial skill level, Amy’s students conduct and apply science practices throughout the year with real-life situations,” said Dan Sitzman, OPS Science Instructional Coach. “Amy’s students are prepared through experience to contribute to the local and global community and the natural environment.” 

In a typical school year, Leising said students in her veterinarian science and environmental science classes spend two days a week in the classroom doing more formal classroom-setting science learning. On other days, vet science students job shadow at the zoo and with veterinarians around the Metro area. 

“On days when they are not in my classroom, if I have the opportunity, I will shadow with them, check in, and find out the things they are getting to learn,” Leising said. 

While her environmental science students don’t have a job-shadowing option, Leising said they do a lot of hands-on research and experiments and use exhibits on grounds at the zoo. She said one of her favorite lesson series for her environmental science students is on sustainable housing, where students build a model sustainable house and study the Desert Dome and Lied Jungle.

“We have a thermal camera that is really fun to play with. There is nothing that isn’t fun to point the thermal camera at, and the zoo gets to be our lab space,” Leising said. 

That same kind of raw curiosity and joy of hands-on teaching is why Sitzman thought Leising would be the perfect candidate for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2019. He nominated her for this recognition, which then went to the state level. The state then selected Leising as one of six finalists to the national level. Leising became one of two teachers from Nebraska to achieve this award in 2019, the other being Debra Bulin of Hebron, Nebraska.

Leising said she was in shock and honored to learn her name had been submitted for the award. In August 2020, an online ceremony celebrated the award winners, but Leising said she was crossing her fingers that the 2019 winners will still be invited to Washington, D.C., for an in-person ceremony. Along with the ceremony, Leising received $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a certificate signed by the United States President.

At the end of the day, however, what keeps Leising going is the raw curiosity that comes back into play as she returns to her students, and the animals, at Zoo Academy. 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann