CUBA CITY, Wis. — Whether they ultimately enter the workforce straight after graduation or simply enhance their technical finesse, Cuba City High School students are being encouraged to sample a menu of “hands-on” vocational and service careers before they matriculate.

Even if students are not sure what they seek professionally, a deep dive into the work sector can help them develop a sense of their interests before they make a significant financial investment in postsecondary education, educators say.

“Being able to explore and figure out all the different skills that are needed in certain job types, to be able to problem solve in an authentic way, to be able to be on site to experience those things (is) so important,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor.

Following her recent declaration of February as “Career and Technical Education Month” in Wisconsin, Stanford Taylor visited Cuba City High School on Wednesday, where staff showcased the district’s school-to-work programs.

Students intent on exploring a career can pursue a set of aligned courses in different sectors, including early childhood development and services, restaurant and food services, manufacturing, engineering and technology, entrepreneurship and animal systems.

The high school also offers certificate and apprenticeship programs where students gain on-the-job experience in conjunction with skills learned through classroom instruction.

By the end of the school year, 168 Cuba City students will have completed a school-to-work program since its inception in 1996.

In their “principles of engineering” class, Justin Brandt and Jacob Wunderlin, both seniors, crouched beside a wooden contraption that resembled a trebuchet, intent on successfully launching a table-tennis ball into a plastic bucket about 15 feet away.

The two spent the better part of a week testing and refining their design.

“We just have to work out some of the flaws,” said Wunderlin, 18.

After they graduate, both students intend to enroll at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, where Brandt, 17, will study agricultural power and equipment technology and Wunderlin will study welding.

Brandt said the process of designing and assembling a device has been a useful exercise that he anticipates he can build upon in his career.

Technology education instructor Guy Kopp hopes to expose his students to the joys and challenges of engineering by walking them through the design process used by professionals.

“There is such a shortage in the United States of kids going into engineering,” he said. “You want to teach them it’s fun. There’s a little work behind it, but it’s rewarding.”