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A teacher turns a science center into a place to learn about nature.

What do you do if you teach in the second largest urban school district in the United States and prefer the outdoors to the classroom?

If you’re lucky, you wind up in Carol Eyster’s job.

For the last decade, Eyster has headed the San Pedro Science Center, one of seven centers operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District for teachers and elementary and junior high students. Eyster is credited with turning the five-acre center into a manicured compound with various gardens, an orchard and menagerie.

“When she first started working here, this place was a jungle,” said Bill Fitzpatrick, a longtime aide at the center. “It was totally metamorphosed under her.”

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Now Eyster has set out to do the same thing at the about two-acre 186th Street Science Center in Gardena, where she was recently transferred with orders to recapture its overgrown areas from the wily ways of Mother Nature and return it to children.

“We have to get the kids here,” Eyster said the other day as she walked the center’s grounds and pointed out the trees badly in need of pruning, an unruly patch of hops and wheat, and abandoned potting buildings.

“We’ve got to show them there is something different from the asphalt and the buildings.”

The work is a labor of love for Eyster, who grew up on a large dairy farm in Ohio. By the age of 5, Eyster said, she was driving tractors; by 9 or 10, she was supervising hay-harvesting crews. She was a member of 4-H until she was 21--an age when many have long since left the student agricultural club.

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Eyster said she became a teacher because she was “not into money, and I knew I really liked kids.” In 1969, she became a teacher at Dana Junior High School in San Pedro, where she ran a program that focused on outdoor studies.

“I would always be on the campus, and we would be hugging a tree,” Eyster said. “I would never allow my students to be encased in a classroom.”

Eyster’s official title at the Gardena center is resource teacher. As such, her job is to demystify science and “lower the anxiety level for teachers, as well as the students,” according to Carol Takemoto, who coordinates the science center programs for the school district.

Sometimes, Eyster conceded, that isn’t easy. With some teachers, she has to start at a very elementary level. “Some of my teachers don’t even know the difference between a sheep and a goat,” she said.

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For both teachers and students, Eyster said, she relies on a teaching philosophy that preaches “hands-on experience. You can only know those things that you experience, and that is it. You can’t tell me what an elephant feels like if you haven’t felt an elephant.

“I have another philosophy,” she added. “You cannot force anyone to do anything. I put the responsibility on the child. . . . It is not my job to force someone to learn. They must come wanting to learn.”

By next fall, Eyster said, she hopes the grounds at the Gardena center will be in tiptop shape. Already, she has made giant strides. With assistance from the California Conservation Corps, numerous trees have been pruned. One coral and six sweet gum trees have been taken out. Some of the trees were infested with termites; the roots of others were cracking nearby sidewalks.

Corps workers will return in the fall to plant an orchard where the barley and wheat now grow. Eyster has already planted cotton, and work has started on a pond. A Japanese garden and drought-resistant plants will be put in as well as a desert landscape.

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Eyster said she also hopes to establish areas around the center’s grounds where children can learn about small machines. She also wants to build a weather station. To supplement her $1,500-a-year budget, she plans to establish a small recycling program at the center where visiting children will drop off newspapers and aluminum cans. She started the same kind of program at the San Pedro center.

“When she got this transfer, I told her, ‘I know where the best science center will be,’ ” Fitzpatrick said, adding that it won’t be long before the Gardena center is on a par with San Pedro.

“By September, it will be cranking,” he predicted.


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