Seventeen-year-old Nancy Gonzalez tensely leaned forward as a contest judge sliced open her taped cardboard box.
"Oh, I can't look," she said, moments before the judge flipped her a thumbs up, holding up four bubble-wrapped eggs that had survived a six-story plunge.
"They survived! They survived!" she and her Santa Ana High School classmates cheered.
The egg-drop contest was a highlight of Cal State Fullerton's Engineering and Computer Science Day, where more than 250 students from five Orange County high schools converged Wednesday to race mousetrap-powered cars and fly balsa gliders.
The event was a preliminary competition for students in Math, Engineering, Science Achievement, a 35-year-old state-funded program to encourage poor and minority students to pursue college degrees in math and science. The winners will compete in a regional contest next month with other Southern California achievement program students.
Some students spent months developing their entries.
Instead of building a better mousetrap, students constructed 1- to 2-foot-long cars that used the energy from a mousetrap's snap to power the wheels, which were made from CDs.
Nabor Cabrera, 16, had worked at home every weekend since December on his shoebox-sized car.
The model the Valley High School junior brought Wednesday was the eighth version he and his partner completed: a shorter, speedier version that, to the excited yells of onlookers, powered through a 5- meter-long racetrack and even braked near the finish lane, gaining points for accuracy.
The competitions aim to show students that math and science are more than reading textbooks and taking multiple-choice tests, teachers said.
"We're constantly trying to see how students can apply science," said Craig Richardson, a teacher at Valley High in Santa Ana.
Maricruz Gonzalez, a 17-year-old junior at Santa Ana's Saddleback High, applied her lessons to design a 3-ounce balsa bridge that supported 176 pounds.
Some teachers worry about the future of MESA, which has seen its state funding drop to $4.74 million this year from $11 million in 2003. That has forced a drop in the number of participating middle and high school students, from 26,000 in 2003 to about 13,000 this year.
The budget threat comes despite statistics that show that 85% of the achievement program graduates attend college, and of those, 65% go into math and science, said Vonna Hammerschmitt, who directs the program at Cal State Fullerton.
But budget worries weren't on the minds of students Wednesday.
A disappointing performance with her mousetrap-powered car didn't keep Valley High junior Jeraldy Vega down.
"It wasn't as we planned," said Vega, 16.
"But I'll come back and do it next year."