MARIETTA — Jupiter Thompson and a group of his classmates from Lindley Middle School concentrated hard as they worked together to scoop fake soil into their remote-controlled construction equipment and transport it through a series of tasks.

Jupiter worked the backhoe, scooping up small brown and yellow pom-poms out of a tupperware container and moving the faux-dirt to the next stage, where a classmate awaited with his dump truck. From there, the dump truck turned to spill its load over the next section of the course, where another loader scooped the pom-poms up and placed them in another plastic container.

In the end, the eighth graders won a prize: C.W. Matthews Contracting Company pens.

Jupiter said he’d never considered construction as a career, but learning on a smaller scale how to operate the machinery has opened his eyes to new possibilities.

“The excavator was really fun. It teaches you a lot of lessons and how to ... multi-task and work with your peers,” he said, adding that he started to master the controls after just a couple spills and a few minutes. “I’m definitely going to stop at more stations, because this was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of opportunities for me to get a head start on what I want to do when I graduate.”

Jupiter was one of the more than 1,000 middle and high school students who made their way through the Cobb County Civic Center on Thursday to experiment with drones, try out virtual reality simulators and explore career and educational options that they may not have previously considered.

The annual Future Fest career and education expo — this year with 57 exhibitors — is an opportunity for students across the county to see job opportunities in a new light and discover portions of industry they didn’t know existed, according to Sapph Espinoza, Career, Technical and Agricultural Education coordinator for the Cobb County School District.

“It’s a career exploration. We want it to spark interest,” she said. “We’re hearing from a lot of our business partners that sometimes kids just don’t have the exposure. They don’t know the careers are there, so we try to bring in (businesses) from high-need areas — places where ... they have a lot of need for employees. And a lot of them are high-skill, high-wage types of jobs.”

Student displays, such as Sprayberry High School’s culinary arts CTAE pathway, were also set up around the expo, giving middle school students an idea of the offerings that could be available in high school.

The expo also welcomed young adults from WorkSource Cobb, an organization helping locals in need transition from high school to the workforce, according to Espinoza. She said the teens and young adults in the program must meet a certain set of criteria to be included, but often face issues including homelessness or low income.

Displays at the event varied from robotics and technology to police and military.

That variety is what most impressed Griffin Middle School eighth grader Nicholas Rivas.

Nicholas visited the culinary and military stations before stopping by Lockheed Martin’s, where he piloted an F-22 fighter jet through virtual reality goggles.

His classmates stood behind him, yelling, “Pull up! Pull up!” and videoing his experience on their smartphones.

“It feels like real life. Like, when you look around, you can see yourself. It was cool,” Nicholas said, adding that the controls were sensitive and a little challenging to get used to.

While the eighth grader wants to either be an NBA star or an archaeologist, he says the career fair did exactly what it was supposed to — exposed him to more than he could have imagined. Like Jupiter, he said he’d leave the expo feeling like he had even more options than he’d once thought.

“There’s different things, like, how toilets work to VR,” he said. “There’s so many different people and places.”

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Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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