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The crowd gave a collective groan as the package dropped from three stories up, hit the ground, burst several masking-taped seams and spurted tufts of wool-like stuffing.

Another, softer parcel dripped goo when it was collected from the blue receiving tarp - called "Ground Zero" — a sure sign its cargo of raw eggs had not survived intact.

But the creative use of cotton balls, styrofoam pellets, green floral foam, packing peanuts, inflated balloons and other shock-absorbing materials enabled dozens of student teams to shield their eggs as they fell from the roof of Sonoma State University's Stevenson Hall.

The fate of the egg-laden packages determined who would go home a winner and who would just go home.

Richmond High School sophomore Maria Castillo — though she eventually won her age group after losing just one of 18 eggs on impact — said even losing would have its reward.

"With failure, you learn more," she said, her nervous hands and feet perhaps betraying more interest in the contest outcome than she was willing to admit.

Castillo, 16, was among some 700 Northern California middle and high schools students who assembled Saturday to broaden their exposure to technical professions and to test their mettle in applied science projects from the egg drop to mouse-trap powered cars to wind-energy devices.

All take part in MESA — Math, Engineering, Science Achievement - a 41-year-old state program designed to expose and excite economically disadvantaged students or those in under-performing schools and improve their chances of moving onto college and pursuing math, sciene and engineering careers.

Many participants work every day after school through a MESA club, experimenting with physics and design and perfecting devices for competition. Others have MESA included in their class curriculum.

Attendees had to place among the top three in their age group at local contests held through the region, from San Jose to the Oregon border, before they could strut their stuff Saturday at SSU. The university was hosting the annual, regional competition for the first time.

Some kids launched balsa wood gliders to see whose would fly farthest.

Others brought bridge structures of Popsicle sticks, balsa wood or folded manila folders they'd made to see which could withstand the greatest amount of pressure. One balsa wood structure from a Ukiah High School team withstood an impressive 205 pounds of pressure before its joints began to give way.

Three related contests for distance, accuracy and power pitted mouse-trap-powered cars against one another in an upper hallway of Darwin Hall.

Sonoma Academy partners Rose Martin and Courtney Smith - whose EggXpress entry took first place in their age group when all 14 of their eggs survived the fall — said their engineering class and MESA involvement had inspired them both to pursue engineering in college, though Martin still has a year to wait.

Conr Ridell, 15, part of Richmond High School's team, said science and engineering won't necessarily make you cool, but no matter. "It basically shapes the world today," he said.

Sophia Fuller, 13, from Millswood Middle School in Lodi, ended up in an engineering class because she didn't want to take drama or band. But she discovered through participation in MESA that she's good at math, design and building and finds it's lots of fun.

"I never even knew that we could do stuff like this," said Fuller, who was adjusting her team's mouse-trap vehicle for a second distance round.

"I guess you could say it kind of awakened us to the opportunity," fellow Millswood eighth-grader Jahred Nunes said.