Felipe Pagan, a Bowsher High School junior and recent transplant from Puerto Rico, knows two things for sure: he doesn’t like the cold in northwest Ohio and he wants a career working with reptiles.

He can’t do much about the first but he has found a way to start learning about reptiles while still in high school.

Felipe is a student at the Natural Science Technology Center that is part of Toledo Public Schools and is adjacent to the Toledo Botanical Garden in South Toledo. The center, at 5561 Elmer Dr., is home to programs in Small Animal Science, Floral Design and Greenhouse and Landscape and Turf.

Juniors and seniors in those programs arrive at the center each day by school bus by 7:30 a.m. and then head to their home high schools for the afternoons at 11:40 a.m. In between, they are getting hands-on experience caring for animals, designing floral arrangements and growing plants in a greenhouse and maintaining the 10 acres that the center sits on. All of the students also become members of the Toledo FFA.

That hands-on experience is a main attraction for students. For example, those in the Animal Science program are responsible for feeding and caring for a wide-range of animals each morning when they arrive at the center.

“I want to be a herpetologist, which is the study of reptiles, because I love reptiles,” Felipe said while giving a tour on a recent morning. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have schools like this.”

He and his fellow tour guide, Rogers High School junior Elaina Willis, kept up a running commentary as they pulled turtles from their pools, unwound a snake and urged a visitor to touch its skin, cuddled with Heather the Hedgehog, nonchalantly petted tarantulas and gave up on trying to coax a sassy chinchilla from its cage.

Those aren’t the only animals in the Animal Science wing.

Step through a door, and two students are learning to groom an oh-so-patient standard poodle named Maggie under the watchful eye of Penny Miller, senior animal science instructor. Another room has grooming stations that are fully stocked with a full range of scissors and other tools. To gain experience, the Animal Science students will groom well-mannered dogs, as long as they have their current vaccinations and an appointment has been made by calling 419-671-1800. Dogs are groomed on Mondays and Wednesdays, with drop off at 7:30 a.m. and pick up at 11:30 a.m.

Take a peak in another room and you find Natalie Cook, junior animal science instructor, teaching the students about the various ingredients found in pet food.

Thomas Dimitrew, director of Agriculture, Construction & Engineering for TPS, said the classes at the Natural Science Center are like all Career Technology programs in which the emphasis is on learning while doing.

“The learning that takes places at the NSTC is all about students actually getting out and doing the things that they are being taught,” he said, pointing to the grooming of the dogs as one example.

“Instead of just identifying trees or fighting parasites in a textbook, NSTC students go outside and trim trees and find and combat harmful insects,” he said. “Floriculture students create floral arrangements and corsages for weddings and formal dances. Greenhouse students raise all sorts of plants and flowers and herbs that are sold at our hugely successful plant sale in May.”

He said the center’s facilities and equipment are state-of-the-art and always expanding, ensuring that students learn to work with equipment and technology identical to what is used in the modern workplace. And ongoing partnerships with the local animal care, landscaping, greenhouse and floral industries guarantees that the teachers and students are always current on the latest trends.

All students at the center receive four elective credits and one in Applied Biology, which counts as a science credit towards graduation. Students can go on to a job site during class time in the last quarter of each year to get hands on, real world experience. These include paid and/or unpaid positions.

The key, say the instructors in the various programs, is to teach students marketable skills that they can use to land a job right out of high school or carry with them as they pursue a career in college.

“We have them do a little bit of everything,” said Dan Weiss, the instructor who oversees the Landscape and Turfgrass division.

And that means his students are outside throughout the year, maintaining the center’s 10 acres through grass cutting and then snow removal season. They are taught to use chain saws to fell trees and limbs, how to design, install and maintain landscapes and how to sod and seed turf used at area golf courses.

“We even have them do small project work so they can learn the business aspect of a project,” Mr. Weiss said.

Mr. Dimitrew says NSTC students use all five senses in the course of learning and applying what they've learned, “better guaranteeing that the information will be retained and recalled. No more wondering why they have to learn math.”

For example, the landscape students apply math to calculate the square footage of a seeding project. Animal Science students apply biology to create and maintain terrariums.

“At the NSTC, it's all about the application of knowledge, not just the accumulation of facts,” Mr. Dimitrew said. “Students who have struggled finding purpose in a traditional classroom setting often rediscover a love of learning at the NSTC, as countless testimonials of past and present students reveal."

But while the instructors are clear in their vision for their students’ instruction, the one thing they still can’t figure out is why more people in the Toledo area haven’t heard about the center – and what it can offer for paying customers.

On a recent morning, the floral design room had two beautiful bridal bouquets on display, as well as gorgeous arrangements designed to hang over the back of chairs.

For the Thanksgiving holiday, the girls in the class were kept busy with creating almost 40 centerpieces that were bought for $15 each. The class also makes wreathes and grave blankets at Christmas time, Valentine’s Day bouquets and grow and sell plants during a major plant sale in May, said Jessica Hammer, floriculture instructor and greenhouse manager.

“I have girls go back to their home schools and their friends want to know if they got the flowers from their boyfriends. They say, No, I made it,” said Ms. Hammer. And yet, very few students seem to know about the program.

Instructors are hoping to get the word out about the center by hosting a Holiday Spectacular this Saturday, December 6th. From noon until 4 p.m. that day, visitors will be able to get tours, buy wreaths for $5 or $7 that can be decorated right then and have free hot dogs, chips and coffee. For the children, there will also be pony rides, a bouncy house and free pictures with Santa.

"The Natural Science Technology Center is truly one of TPS' most unique and valuable resources, and offers students all kinds of hands-on interaction with the plants and animals of the natural world that they may not otherwise experience in a large urban district,” Mr. Dimitrew said.