High School Students Experience Health Careers Up Close at State Conference  

(Photo: More than 1,300 students attended last week’s Colorado HOSA – Future Health Professionals conference.)

Addressing about 30 high school students in a packed conference room, Michele Claiborne, a pharmacy professor at Regis University, pulled up a case study of a typical patient.

“He’s presenting with new heart failure, new kidney failure, a history of liver failure, and an abdominal infection. He has an allergy to penicillin, which causes respiratory failure,” she said. “I want you to take a look at this list of medications and see if there are any changes that you would make.”

The crowd peppered Claiborne with suggestions. Why was the patient taking three different pain medications, especially an opioid? Why would he need Gabapentin if he wasn’t suffering from nerve pain? And wouldn’t amoxicillin, used to treat his infection, trigger his allergy?

“Yes,” Claiborne responded. “You just saved a life. We’re going to switch it to an antibiotic that will cover the bugs that we suspect for an abdominal infection but won’t cause respiratory problems.”

We get in front of students to let them know what’s out there and learn about possibilities they didn’t know existed,” – Jordan Whittington, health and public safety program director with Colorado CTE


The exercise was just one of many real-life simulations students experienced at last week’s Colorado HOSA – Future Health Professionals conference. More than 1,300 high schoolers descended on Denver to hear from working professionals, take part in competitions, and even let loose during a “dork dance.”

Including HOSA, the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) coordinates eight Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs) that provide professional development opportunities for learners in career and technical education (CTE) fields. Nearly 75,000 Colorado high school students take CTE courses, and 75% complete a full two-year program.

In addition to practicing hands-on skills, such as administering CPR or drawing blood, students get to explore careers up close through CTSOs, said Jordan Whittington, health and public safety program director with Colorado CTE.

“Until they know someone’s doing it, and they made it, students don’t know what they can do,” he said. “We get in front of students to let them know what’s out there and learn about possibilities they didn’t know existed.”

Within the health sciences career cluster, students can opt for nine different pathways, including nurse aide, behavioral health technician, sports medicine, and occupational therapy. Courses begin with foundational skills, such as medical terminology and anatomy, and gradually build toward more specialized topics like nutrition and ethics.

Curriculum is constantly revamped to align with the latest industry trends, Whittington said.

“One of my favorite examples is empathy,” he said. “Knowing what a patient needs—how to care for somebody and not just their condition. What does their daily life look like? Those are all things that students can experience.”

Katelin Travis, a former HOSA president, said these skills have been invaluable as she navigates life after high school. She returned to volunteer at the conference and is currently attending Pikes Peak State College with the goal of transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree in education. 

“Even though my career path changed, I decided to stick with it because this gave me leadership skills,” she said, noting the many professional connections she made through HOSA. “It gave me building blocks that I am now standing on for my future career.”

Success stories like Katelin’s are what CTSOs are all about, Whittington said. Thanks to their work-based learning approach, students can test out their passions before committing additional time and money. And there’s evidence that CTE keeps students more engaged, too; among students on CTE pathways, more than 98% graduated high school compared to just 82% of the general population in the 2021-2022 academic year.

“It’s a very successful way to help students not just graduate, but to move onto something in the real world,” Whittington said.

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