Teresa Hernandez may not have planned to have her own science education business, but she is now the proud owner of Adventures in Living Science and enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge with area students.

Hernandez is also the director of education at the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park in Santa Ana, California, an organization where she has worked for approximately 18 years.

It was while she worked at the zoo part-time, hoping for a full-time position to open, that she decided to complete her degree. Hernandez received a Citizen Potawatomi Nation Department of Education scholarship. She used the support to complete her bachelor’s degree as a non-traditional college student.

“I finished my bachelor’s degree in science education, biology specifically. There still wasn’t a full-time slot at the zoo, and I was pretty sure that that’s where I wanted to be. So, I finished my master’s while I waited. And right before my master’s program was done, my backup plan was, ‘Well, I’ll just open a little business and do what I do for the zoo,’” she said.

The zoo occasionally had to turn schools away because they could not staff all the demands for science education, she said. When financial decisions forced the zoo to eliminate the ZooMobile science education program that visited area schools, Hernandez stepped in.

Her experience with the ZooMobile came in handy. Hernandez developed and implemented educational programs based on a school’s curriculum for each grade level. Local schools knew Hernandez from previous ZooMobile visits.

“I was turning away schools that I had a 15-year relationship with. So, I quickly launched my own business so that I didn’t have to turn them away,” she said. “That’s how the business was born. I had a lot of support from the zoo director, and he sent a lot of my early work my way.”

Currently, Adventures in Living Science is booked into the summer.

“The business is doing well. I do it on my off time. And now that I’m full time (at the zoo), they give me a holiday bank. If a school needs me on a weekday, I usually use my time off for those days,” she said.

Hernandez has ended up exactly where she needs to be.

“In a very roundabout way,” she said. “I could not do it without the help of some very dedicated volunteers. Some of them drive from other states just to help me with big events. Others help me to create unique experiences for students that they just can’t find elsewhere.”

Animal visits

Currently, Hernandez has a wide variety of animals that visit area schools including a hedgehog, rabbit, guinea pig, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, lizards, box turtle, desert tortoises, bullfrog, salamander, stick and leaf insects, beetles, cockroaches and isopods. A puppy, three doves and an African gray parrot serve as therapy animals.

Caring for them fills most of her days, with many chores happening in the morning, or on designated days when she has more time. Some mornings, she leaves the house a little behind schedule because of the unpredictable needs of her animals.

“I usually get up around 5 a.m. and I try to take care of all the animals before I go to work, and I leave for work at about 7 a.m. I’m always scooting out the door a little bit late because there’s (an animal) that poops when they’re not supposed to or made a mess of something,” Hernandez laughed. “I have the weekly tasks broken up onto different days so that I can do them more quickly and it doesn’t become overwhelming.”

With her business focused on schools and science education, rather than social events like parties, she limits her schedule to mostly weekdays.

“I do a lot of science nights and STEAM nights at schools. So, on Saturday I will prep for whatever is going to happen in the middle of the week if I can,” she said. “It is more than deciding which animals will visit a school. I custom design the curriculum to fit the standards for each grade level.”

Non-traditional student

As a busy wife and mother, Hernandez carefully planned her educational endeavors.

“When I first went back to school, I wanted to be a field biologist,” she said. “I started going to a community college when my daughter was still in grade school. As she got a little older, I thought about going back to school. I considered being a biologist, but it’s hard to be a field biologist and be out in the field when you have a family. So, I took my time. I knew that I would be in school a while because I had to do it part time.”

While in school, she found a job in Moorpark, California, hosting after-school educational programs. Hernandez would spend about a week at each school teaching biology with live animals.

“We got to develop the curriculum ourselves. I liked the teaching so much that I switched my degree from biology to education,” she said.

Respect for nature

The Vieux family descendant has always felt a connection to nature, both animals and plants. She attributes part of that connection to the lessons she learned from her grandparents as a child.

“My connection to science is through plants and animals. I think my enthusiasm for nature, it’s just how I connect with the world. The animals were my first connection and is really what drove me as a child. There weren’t very many animals that I couldn’t find a way to approach. That was really instrumental for me,” she said.

Hernandez credits her grandparents with teaching her to respect natural resources.

“When I was growing up, I knew my grandfather was Potawatomi. (Learning) was kind of a subtle thing that you just felt through the family, kind of a quiet respect for those traditions. I didn’t really get to discover a lot about our culture specifically until I was an adult. But I think that may have laid the foundation for how I interact with the world,” she said.

She relishes opportunities to share her Potawatomi heritage and the history of other Indigenous people of Southern California.

“I’m excited to represent my heritage. I do have some programs and presentations that I offer to schools, especially in fourth grade when they’re learning about American history and culture. I put those things together so that what we offer isn’t just a straight science animal program. I can share other voices of history, our history, which is nice,” she said.

When she is teaching, she hopes students absorb the most important part of her presentation.

“Here in Southern California, I see the movement goes back and forth over the years of pulling away and not touching anything and just appreciating animals from a distance. I think that that does us all a disservice. We have to learn to interact with nature in a respectful way. Through interacting with living things, (students) can learn to respect what’s around them. I’m really hoping to do that because they can take that with them throughout life,” she said.

To learn more, email adventuresinlivingscience@gmail.com or follow @AdventuresInLivingScience on Facebook.