So, what do you want to be when you grow up? That's the age old question that youth often aren't prepared to answer even when high school graduation looms large in their future. It's also why studies indicate between 20 and 50% of incoming college freshmen haven't settled on a major field of study and why 75% of students change their major at least once before college graduation. Options in the 21st century are many - some new high school graduates go into the workforce and others opt for a military career. Some choose to enroll in further technical training and others go the college route.

At Neosho Junior High School, however, a new program, Career Explorations, that began this year hopes to address the question and provide students with a better idea of what career could be a fit in the future.

"It gives real world experience while the kids are trying to figure out what they want to do - or not," Neosho teacher Mark Daughtery said. Daughtery retired from full-time teaching but is active with the Career Explorations program.

It's the first year for Career Explorations. The roots of the program began last year when junior high counselor Tammy Blaylock began setting up a career day for students once a month. With a different theme each month, professionals from the community came to the school and presented information about their field to students. Daughtery suggested taking the program one step farther by adding hands on experience in the community. All 325 eighth grade students are participants.

"Our students are excited and ready to visit and see what it's like in the actual work place," Daughtery said. "This is an opportunity for our students to explore occupations and connect what they are learning in class and how it is important to what they plan to do as a career."

Some of the things discussed when students visit a business or job site including learning what is done on a daily basis, what kind of classes to take to prepare for the field, what was a personal path to this career, and what students should be doing if they have an interest in this career.

Some of the places eighth graders have visited so far this year include Branco, Four States Dental, Newton County Ambulance station, Freeman Hospital, Silhouette Imaging, La-Z-Boy Midwest, Neosho Graphics, Community Bank, KNEO Radio, Nutra Blend, Faithful Friends, and Crowder College for nursing, agriculture and the MARET (Missouri Renewable Energy and Technology).

Community Explorations students experience more than a traditional field trip.

"It's very hands on," Daughtery said. "As much as it can be."

On the site of the new Goodman Elementary School, students donned hard hats and worked with supervision from Branco Enterprises employees. They've visited Faithful Friends where students experienced a blend of community service - such as cleaning out animal pens - and fun, playing with the cats and dogs at the no-kill shelter.

"It's just as informative to find out what you don't want to do," Daughtery said, noting that some students discovered that worked in the veterinary field involves more than cuddling an animal or that nursing may involve blood, something that prompted one student to reconsider her career pathway plans.

With the program focused on eighth grade students, it provides the youth with the chance to plan their high school studies around the field they may choose.

"By doing it in the eighth grade, they have a better way to plan their electives."

So far, students are enjoying the program.

"It's more than just getting out of school," Daughtery said. "We're making it a lot more than that. The kids are really enjoying it."

As a Valentine's Day project, the students from Career Explorations will be at Webwood Assisted Living in Neosho. 1640 Waldo Hatler Drive, on February 14. Students will be preparing a special banquet for residents.

Each month a different theme provides a focus for the students. This month's theme is human services. Past themes have been health care, business/finance, agriculture and manufacturing/construction. In March, the theme will be technology.