MIDDLETOWN — On their summer vacation, 44 high school students from seven public school districts are back in the classroom this week learning about careers in health care.

Valley Health’s seventh annual week-long Health Sciences Academy kicked off Monday, inviting rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders to try on a career for size.

“Yesterday, I got to suture a cow tongue,” said Carrie Gibson, 17, who was rotating through some classes at Lord Fairfax Community College on Wednesday.

A rising senior at Skyline High School in Front Royal, she said her favorite part of the academy so far was seeing the Intensive Care Unit at Winchester Medical Center.

Thinking of studying either dental hygiene or nursing, she said she would recommend the academy to other area teens.

“If you get the opportunity, definitely do this,” she said. “It’s been nice meeting new people that share the same interests.”

Mackenzi Bates, 16, a rising junior at Warren County High, said she learned to insert chest tubes and give injections at Shenandoah University’s Health & Life Sciences Building and enjoyed touring the university’s cadaver lab.

There, she held a human brain and got to see the internal organs of a female body.

Hoping to become a labor and delivery nurse, she said she was surprised to learn how small a uterus is.

Though it might eventually stretch to grow a baby, she said, “It’s cool to see how small it starts out.”

On Wednesday, academy students were studying at the community college in Middletown, gaining experience in emergency medical techniques, practicing intubation on a mannequin, and dressing for surgery.

Decked out in a surgical cap, mask, gown and gloves, Jackson Umbenour, a 15-year-old rising junior at Sherando High in Stephens City, talked of learning how patients transfer from the ICU to a regular hospital room.

At Shenandoah University, he learned to give flu shots, clean wounds and take a patient’s pulse.

He learned about radiology technology like MRIs and X-rays, and he also recalled the cadaver lab as a highlight.

“Seeing something like that in real life, I was nervous going in,” he said.

The academy is part of the Health Science Career Pathway Program — a partnership that Valley Health has with LFCC, Shenandoah University, and the seven area school districts of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Warren and Winchester.

Its goal is to introduce students to the sorts of health care careers they might want to pursue but didn’t know were out there, said Brenda Byard, dean of academic student affairs and outreach for LFCC.

“Many students only think of health professions as being a doctor or nurse,” she said. The program exposes them to all types of allied health careers at hospitals or around the community.

It’s also a way to foster excitement among students in the work they might do, said Lisa Zerull, director & academic liaison with Valley Health’s Nurse Residency Program, Spiritual Care Services, and Youth Healthcare Career Exploration.

“The best way to test a career is to try it on,” she said.

Students at this year’s academy attend Clarke County, Handley, James Wood, Luray, Millbrook, Page County, Sherando, Skyline, Warren County, Strasburg, Stonewall Jackson and Rappahannock high schools.

They were recommended by their teachers and selected by their school counselors, Zerull said.

The program began in 2013 through discussions between then Superintendent of Winchester Public Schools Rick Leonard and Valley Health President and CEO Mark Merrill.

“They were at a social event and said, ‘What if?’” Zerull explained.

The program’s original premise was to meet workforce demand, said Byard. Since then, the Valley Health partnership, called the Community Partnership for Health Sciences Education, has expanded to include a master’s program in biology at Shenandoah University and a dual-enrollment program that brings more anatomy and physiology classes to high school students.

The dual-enrollment program, which started last summer, saves students a year of higher education in health care programs by allowing them to take prerequisite college courses while they’re still in high school.

Students who attend the summer academy receive college credit at LFCC in SDV-101 (Orientation to Health Professions), and Zerull said participating school districts have committed to starting medical sciences classes at their schools.

“It’s pretty impressive,” she said. “This is not the norm.”

Though it’s now an expected part of summer for valley students interested in health care careers, Zerull said other school districts around the region and state don’t have anything like this.

“You’ve got to have vision,” Zerull said, “and you’ve got to have a health system willing to work with the school divisions in partnership.”

The “why” is also important, she said, recalling an idea that Grady W. “Skip” Phillips III, president of Winchester Medical Center, once discussed with her.

“The ‘why’ behind my ‘what,’” she said, “is getting students excited about health professions.”

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com