NEWPORT BEACH — A group of girls worked quickly, racing against a team of boys to finish first.

The two teams were each gathered in front of a limbless mannequin with exposed, removable organs, trying to connect the different body parts with their names on paper.

"Told you! Girls are smarter," said 14-year-old Natacha Vasquez when her team finished first.

Ensign Intermediate School's gym buzzed Monday and Tuesday with competitions, hands-on activities and information on different career paths for its first Vital Link Career Exploration event.

The schoolwide affair gave students a look at different opportunities in medicine, environmental design, construction, as well as the alternative fuel and automotive fields, while showing them the different community colleges and universities that can help them get there.

"We really want our middle-school students to really start thinking about high school, college and careers," said Principal Steve McLaughlin.

Vital Link is a nonprofit that works to bridge the gap between the business and education worlds while helping students find careers in fields they are not only good at, but interested in, said Executive Director Kathy Johnson.

The program has traditionally served high schools, but it recently started branching out to middle schools, Johnson said, adding that career exploration earlier on helps students be more proactive in picking out their classes and electives in high school.

Middle school is a vital time for students to find something they are interested in and give them a reason to continue working through high school, McLaughlin said, adding that research shows many high schoolers drop out because of a poor middle-school experience.

Although picking a career might seem like it's a lifetime away for middle-school students, eighth-grade science teacher Kari Rush said the students were not only engaged but were asking if they could come back during lunch or after school.

Eighth-grader William Cornutt, 14, said he already had an interest in medicine, although he doesn't know in what capacity, so he found the activities and information related to that field interesting. A booth on hydrogen fuel cells, where students got to see what looked like a mini skateboard with wires powered by fuel cells, also caught his eye.

McLaughlin said he's hoping events like Vital Link Career Exploration, which is just one component of a career fair of sorts called "Focus on Your Future" week, will get students excited and engaged in school, McLaughlin said.

"Focus on Your Future" week started four years ago as a small after-school career fair and has since grown into an eight-day event.

Throughout the week, students explore different high-school paths with representatives from Newport Harbor and Early College high schools, meet with middle-school counselors who help them map out their next five years, learn about different higher education options and watch an assembly with the creators of the PBS series Roadtrip Nation.

"This is all about showing the kids the endless possibilities of their future," McLaughlin said.