BILOXI -- Over the course of two days this week, 6,000 eighth-graders will walk through the Pathways2Possibilities career fair.
It's the third year for the Gulf Coast fair. But for the first time this year, P2P is in the midst of an expansion organizers hope is the first step to bringing the experience to every eighth-grader in Mississippi and beyond.
"Eighth-graders are thinking about their future and realizing they have some control over it," said Paige Roberts, one of the event coordinators. The goal, she added, "isn't necessarily a four-year degree or necessarily a degree, it is a path that leads to a career."
On Wednesday morning, groups of eighth-graders began to arrive at Biloxi's Coast Convention Center. They roamed the fair, which is divided into 19 pathways such as aerospace, energy, hospitality and tourism, information technology, education and training, and marine science. The pathways correlate to those established by the state Department of Education, with some -- such as aerospace and marine science -- aimed specifically at Coast careers.
Representatives of Coast businesses, schools and the military run booths, at which the students can participate in hands-on activities.
Next door, NASA representatives from Stennis Space Center run a pilot program, having groups of students participate in an engineering challenge in which the winning group earns a "NASA day" for their school.
The goal, organizers said, isn't to lock middle school students into a single career path, but to use tactile learning to show them the relevance of what they are doing in school.
The students also learn "how to transfer their skills into a career," said Karen Sock, the fair's other organizer.
Until this year in Mississippi, this type of career expo was unique to the Coast.
But that doesn't mean it's not needed elsewhere, organizers said.
Mississippi has a four-year college graduation rate of 23 percent. In six years, only about 44 percent of students have completed a degree. The state has an unemployment rate of just above 6 percent but industry on the Coast still struggles to hire skilled labor. And those struggles aren't unique to Mississippi.
Expos such as this can correct the disconnect, Roberts and Sock said, between people looking for jobs and the skills they need to actually acquire them. The fairs aim to build a better workforce for Mississippi, they said.
So the group got a $100,000 grant to expand P2P statewide.
The first P2P not on the Coast took place in Tupelo last month.
About 3,000 students from seven counties in northeast Mississippi attended.
The organizers, with the Create Foundation, said all praised the event and said they had received good feedback from everyone involved.
"The schools were appreciative. And they followed through to the next level," said Mary Alice McLaurin.
Juanita Floyd, the group's vice president for finance and administration, said the fair, the first of its kind in the region, was also a good way to get the community involved.
On Wednesday, community leaders from northwest Mississippi attended the expo. Organizers would next like to expand into the Delta. They are looking for a space large enough to house such an expo -- always a challenge -- then setting a date. After that, organizers can start reaching out to business and community partners.
"The goal is to guide (area community leaders) with a template, then hand it off and go to the next place," Sock said.
The organizers have also commissioned a longitudinal study from the University of Mississippi, looking at the short- and long-term effects of the career expo.
"(Eighth-graders) are starting to realize the decisions they make now will affect what's going on," Roberts said. "We hope this helps lead them down the path toward relevance and how this is all connected to school."