WOODSTOCK — Schools around the region don’t open until later this month but area students are already hard at work considering their career paths.

During Valley Health System’s Medical Career Investigation camp at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, middle and high school students from around the area tried out various health care jobs this week, discovering what’s out there and what might interest them.

Earlier this week, the rising sixth- through ninth-graders watched an eye dissection, heard about organ donation, learned how to help prevent the spread of infectious disease, rode in an ambulance, and were quizzed on how to make healthy food choices. Today, they are scheduled to learn CPR and staple pigs’ feet in the operating room.

The goal of the camp is to expose students to the many career options in the health care field, said Melissa Stalbird, director of southern region education for Page, Warren and Shenandoah hospitals.

“This is definitely planting the seed,” Stalbird said.

Many kids think of health care jobs being for doctors or nurses, so Stalbird said the camp opens their eyes to other careers such as technicians, dietitians and certified nursing assistant jobs, as well as health care jobs outside of hospitals, and hospital jobs that have nothing to do with health care.

On Wednesday, they studied in the hospital’s Rehabilitation Services unit, learning how occupational therapists help patients work on balance, coordination and strength conditioning.

One highlight was when the students interacted with facility dog Nevada, a Lab-golden mix, who started with the hospital this past spring.

“He can get on the swings,” Occupational Therapist Jennifer Dickson told the students.

“Seriously?” 11-year-old Emmalee Clark asked, eyes wide.

The rising Peter Muhlenburg Middle School sixth-grader later said she hopes to have a fun job like Dickson’s.

“That’s what I do, play all day,” said Dickson. “It has been my dream to have a dog work with me.”

Dickson said she never intended to work with kids when she went into health care — “and now I can’t do anything but.”

Addison Hinkle’s favorite lesson was using black light powder to learn proper handwashing techniques. After washing the invisible powder off her hands, the 12-year-old said the black light showed that many of her classmates still had some under their fingernails, indicating how improper washing can leave germs behind.

A rising seventh-grader at North Fork Middle School, Addison said she wants to be a surgeon.

While many students were first-time campers this year, Stalbird said quite a few were returning to learn more.

Madalyn Thorpe, 12, and Charlotte Weaver, 14, were attending for their third summer, and Hannah Duncan, 14, was in her fourth summer.

Madalyn, a rising eighth-grader at Peter Muhlenburg Middle School, first joined the camp “because it seemed fun” and said she’s considering becoming a veterinarian.

Charlotte, who wants to be a pharmacist, said watching the eyeball dissection was her favorite part so far.

Hannah, who’s thinking about being a physical therapist, enjoyed Tuesday’s mock trauma and tour of the emergency room. Both girls are rising ninth-graders at Stonewall Jackson High School.

Stalbird said research has shown that starting children on career-based activities early gets them interested in their career paths sooner.

“This is the age,” she said. Not only does it fuel more interest in health care careers, she said it also weeds out children with a casual interest in medicine who decide it might not be for them after all.

The program at Shenandoah has been going for more than 10 years, Stalbird said, and each year medical staff work to provide a fun week for students. They also get ideas on what works and doesn’t work by surveying the kids.

Start-of-the-week surveys sometimes reveal children are there because “my parents made me come.” Stalbird said it’s the post-surveys at week’s end that are especially telling.

“You really get a good review,” she said.

It also says a lot when students sign up again next year.

“When I have kids that want to come back … that speaks volumes.”

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com