Dordt College News

Vander Zee nurtured a love for creation

May 9, 2009

Delmar Vander Zee

Delmar Vander Zee graduated from Dordt in 1966, part of its second class of four-year graduates.

Urged by one of his professors to go to graduate school, he returned only three years later as an instructor—a very young instructor, he says. Vander Zee describes his time here as forty years of refining, growing, nurturing, and professing.

He uses the word “professing” very consciously, following the example of one of his mentors, Christian Environmentalist Dr. Calvin De Witt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As a biology professor, he has “professed” what he believes throughout his forty years of teaching. That profession has been a passionate call to students and the community to see and enjoy the biological world and how people should live in and take care of it.

That message and Vander Zee’s expertise in his field have had a profound influence on his students, many of whom wrote to congratulate him upon his retirement. One wrote, “Your classes were always incredibly well taught, with great creativity, but even more important, passionately—with an awe-inspiring wonder of how God intricately created and still sovereignly sustains His universe and His people.”

Vander Zee did not shirk from work and threw himself into it. He says he has always liked to analyze and solve problems to see how he can improve things.

“I’ve always had a strong sense of doing things right, mechanically and morally,” he says.  That characteristic and an innate energy have motivated him not only to be fresh and creative in his teaching but also to propose new ideas and programs within the department and the college.

For years, Vander Zee took his students to the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory at Lake Okoboji. He and his students, and later Dr. Robb De Haan and his students, have collected thirty-six years of data on West Lake Okoboji, taken during annual two-day field trips. He’s always believed that teaching in the field is the most immediate and effective way to help students understand how creation works.

Always an advocate of research, Vander Zee and a colleague proposed a research project that would explore sustainable land-use practices at Dordt’s newly established Agriculture Stewardship Center in the 1980s. They received a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture to study “Ground Water Nitrates in Cropping Systems.” Interestingly, a research project by a Dordt College student, which found that nearly fifty percent of shallow wells on rural farms had nitrate pollution levels that were unsafe for young children, had been the lead testimony when the Iowa Legislature was considering setting up the Leopold Center.

In addition to initiating many curricular and program changes in the biology department, Vander Zee worked long and hard to establish an environmental studies major at Dordt. For years he taught an environmental biology course at AuSable Institute and later headed their West Coast Pacific Rim summer environmental studies program. The major was approved in 1985.

“Given who we are and what we say we want to be, we need to have an environmental studies program on campus,” he says today.

One effort particularly close to his heart was the adoption of a Directed Senior Research component to the biology major.

“It is one course where students are challenged to think outside the boxes of canned lectures and labs…often inspiring them to discover a gift they did not know they had,” he says.

In a fitting tribute to Vander Zee’s push to include more student research, the college through funding from alumni and supporters has now set up the Delmar Vander Zee Research Fellowship in the Sciences. The fellowship will fund research by a Dordt College student majoring in biology.

Vander Zee had high expectations for his students, but his enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject led many to share the sentiment written by one alumnus: “We came away inspired to learn more as you modeled for us the role of the perpetual student and lifelong learner, both as teacher and a biologist with a grand Christian worldview.”


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