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 Getting to Know SDCOE: Our Ecological Superheroes

They're set designers and superheroes, farmers and drivers, students and instructors. It's safe to say there's no simple job description for San Diego County Office of Education's Outdoor Education teacher assistants -- better known as TAs.

"We're whatever we need to be for education," said Erika Hernandez, a student at San Diego State University who's working on a degree in English.

Added Justine Clark: "The name TA doesn't do it justice."

The 10 part-time TAs support the Outdoor Education department's outreach programs. One day, they may be helping young students become scientists to solve a water-quality mystery while learning about the watershed with the Splash Science Mobile Lab. On another, the topic may be teaching children about food sources and nutrition with the Green Machine. They also lead assemblies on recycling and energy conservation.

The current crop of TAs come from all walks of life -- one worked in oilfields, another in Afghanistan, others are lifelong San Diegans and multilingual -- and it's clear that the  20-somethings love what they do, embrace the experience, and have bonded to become a team of friends.

It was Ric DeSantiago raving about his job outside biology class one day at Mesa College that drew John Harris into the TA fold.

"A bunch of us were complaining about our jobs and Ric said, 'I love my job teaching kids about pollution,'" Harris said. "I said, 'That sounds amazing.' "

Schoolchildren are happy to see the TAs. Outdoor Education Outreach Leader Janice Duvall said the TAs and the Outdoor Education department get fan mail after assemblies.

"Knowing you make a difference in this world, that's the benefit of the job," Hernandez said.

The TAs get as much out of the presentations as the students do, gaining invaluable experience working with children and speaking in public. They also learn how to drive the Splash Lab, which is an RV. Duvall takes them out to the parking lot of the San Diego Zoo and sets up an obstacle course for RV driving lessons.

Linda La is studying to be a pediatric nurse, and finds that being an Outdoor Education TA is a great opportunity to work with kids from all over the county.

"It's fun knowing it's going to be different every day," La said. "It's never boring."

For DeSantiago, his work as a TA and pursuit of an environmental science degree is inspired by his work as an oilfield laborer and safety inspector in Central California.

"I was going to a lot of beautiful locations, seeing wildlife, and we'd level it down for construction. I had to report signs of endangered species," he said. "Years later, I went back to a site by the Kern River, and it was just dirt and machines. That triggered a lot and sent me in the opposite direction."

Duvall finds inspiration in the backstories of DeSantiago and the other TAs. She believes they are drawn to the job because of their backgrounds and their future goals.

"They're here because they love it, and it looks good on their resume," Duvall said. "It's a good stepping stone and TAs have gotten great jobs from here."