Like many, sophomore Grace Rieger is still trying to decide what her future career will be. 
The C.M. Russell student was one of 2,000 area middle and high school students who this week were exposed to more than 60 career fields as part of the first Worlds of Work. 
Event organizers United Way of Cascade County and the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce described the Worlds Of Work as a career fair on steroids. 
United Way Community Impact Coordinator Lacey Hallett said WOW helps students connect the dots between what they are learning in their classrooms to their future careers. It also aims to address local businesses’ needs for a well-prepared workforce. 
“I think it’s really interesting and a great opportunity to learn about different career fields that you may be interested in to actually get more information and dig deeper and experience what they do in their profession,” Rieger said.
Last spring, community leaders from the chamber, United Way, educators and legislators traveled to western Alabama to learn and replicate how that community is leveraging businesses to enhance students’ educational experiences and how schools teach students applicable job skills for local industries.
Every 8th-grader and sophomore with Great Falls Public Schools and hundreds of students from area schools, including Fort Benton, Geraldine, Highwood and more, came to the event held at Great Falls College and the University of Providence campuses. 
The more than 60 businesses, from Hoven Equipment to D.A. Davidson Companies, were given clear guidelines – they wouldn’t be handing out pamphlets or other giveaways. They were to engage students in hands-on learning that would give them a glimpse into future careers. 
Students were given an opportunity to run a skid-steer, create concrete bricks, weld the Bison and CMR logos, try their hand at forecasting the weather in front of a green screen, run medical tests on dummies and write computer programs. 
“For years, we’ve been trying to bring together the business community to work strategically with educators,” Great Falls Superintendent Tom Moore said. “What I saw at the Worlds of Work was authentic engagement. Students were excited – there was literally a WOW factor.”
James Easton, who just started working at the state Chamber of Commerce, came up from Billings to volunteer for the event and was pretty blown away by the scope of the event as helicopters, tractors, race cars, first responders and other medical professions took over both campuses on the south side of Great Falls for the day. 
“Nothing of this scale has ever been done to engage our students in such a hands-on, interactive way,” the chamber’s Director of Workforce Education Scott Wolff said. “The best way to give the students an opportunity to learn what is available right here—in their own backyard—is to have them get their hands dirty, so to speak, and manipulate tools and equipment they would employ across those 16 different career pathways represented at Worlds of Work.”
Easton hopes to share what he learned at WOW and replicate the event in other communities around the state.
More than 200 volunteers, including 80 from UP and 60 from Great Falls College, guided students through the 16 work “worlds.” 
Great Falls College CEO and Dean Dr. Stephanie Erdmann said having the event at the colleges also introduces students to a college experience.
“The joy, laughter and curiosity of the students brightened our campus,” she said. “We trust that it opened their eyes to career paths they had never even dreamed of before and expanded their horizons. We also hope inspired the eighth- and 10th-graders to talk to their counselors about dual enrollment opportunities available to them so they can explore their passions while in high school.”
“This career exploration event provided a platform for students to envision their future, to see in a literal sense through interactive learning, the possibilities which exist,” UP Chief Operating Office Brittany Budeski said.
Hallett and Moore said it’s important that WOW goes beyond just a one-day event. From here, teachers and counselors can connect students to classes and extracurricular activities that can help them earn college credits and build the skills needed to succeed after they graduate. 
“If there are students who are struggling and thinking about dropping out, we can engage them in their education by connecting them with opportunities that are meaningful to their futures,” Moore said.
Hallett said the hope is to continue WOW for eighth-graders and sophomores, but to eventually add a spring event where juniors and seniors get an opportunity to apply for jobs and internships.
“We are connecting students with industry in a super hands on way that excites them and starts them thinking about career pathways that they can work on in the future but also today,” she said. 
Wade Nelson, a sophomore at Conrad High, was pretty amazed at the variety of career paths he was able to learn about. 
“I’m learning a lot of new stuff about programming, 3D, stuff like that, and a bunch of welding. It was pretty fun,” he said. 
What impressed him most?
“Mostly the welding because that’s something I want to go into after high school,” he said. “Mainly because I can travel, be around the country, other countries if I want to, that’s just the fun part of it.”
Already as an eighth-grader, Kamea Blackelk has her eye on a career in health care. The North Middle School student was amazed to see an array of opportunities at WOW.
“You could do CPR, and they taught you what kind of doctors or surgeons you can be, and they gave you a little guide on basically what you are doing to the human and how you can … save a life,” she said.