ONTARIO — “That’s my cheek!� said Annex Charter School 8th grader Emily Sanchez to fellow student Emily Thomas in the biology labs at Treasure Valley Community College on Thursday.

The students weren’t there for dual credit classes. They, among 357 other students, mainly 7th graders, took part in Malheur Health Science Day, a chance for students across the county to learn about health related professions and take part in hands-on health science activities. A few of these included CPR training, a look into virtual reality Z-Space technology, use of a college grade biology lab, and what is known as Math in Real Life.

“Our goal is to have them open their eyes to a career,� said Nickie Shira, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math coordinator for the Frontier STEM Hub of the Malheur Education Service District.

The event was the first of its kind, brought through a collaboration among the Frontier STEM Hub, the Oregon State University Extension office, TVCC, and Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario.

During a quick lunch that saw every student pack into Four Rivers Cultural Center, area universities were available to provide information on their programs. These universities included College of Western Idaho, Oregon State University, Eastern Oregon University, TVCC, and Stevens-Henager College.

“What I’ve noticed is that with this event we’re finally starting at the appropriate age,� said Angela Robinson, high school consultant for Stevens-Henager. “I’ve seen too much of: ‘I’m a senior in high school and I don’t know what to do.’�

Ontario Middle School was one of the schools for the science day and its seventh graders got to experience some rather unique features of the event: mainly Z-space virtual reality and an inflatable colon Saint Alphonsus brought to the venue.

“There’s something new tech students have been able to experience,� said Ontario Middle School vice principal Chad Hartley.

He shared sentiments with Robinson on the importance of reaching students earlier.

“It’s been a trend that we’ve been doing,� Hartley said. “The earlier you can get a student to start thinking about a career, the better.�

A group of Ontario Middle School students gathered inside the inflatable colon with some beginning to poke and hug what they thought looked to be a raspberry hanging from the blow up structure.

“That raspberry you’re hugging is actually a tumor,� said Saint Alphonsus registered nurse Lauree Barry.

Some of the students immediately let go.

Schools were divided into groups led by TVCC and in some cases, high school students. One of those was Adrian High School junior Eduardo Muñoz, who was amazed at the opportunities the 7th graders were able to have on Thursday.

“I hope these kids realize what’s before them,� Muñoz said. “They need to take advantage of this. I mean, they’re learning things today that I am currently learning right now, so it’s great for them.�

Samuel Castonguay, a physical sciences instructor at TVCC, was present during the lab experience to provide some help on a cheek cell lab worksheet the students worked on as they peeked into a microscope.

“It’s been a whirlwind experience for some of them,� Castonguay said. “The college experience is new, and a chance to step into a laboratory.�

He was also excited for the enthusiasm shown by some of the students.

“There were 20 percent, maybe lower, of kids hoping for that ‘aha’ moment that they got today,� he said.