Maricela Garcia spent Saturday morning identifying parts of the eye and answering questions during a Math Engineering Science Achievement competition trial.
"It's a great program," the eighth-grader said. "It gives you a lot of opportunities. It helps you get to college."
Los Banos Junior High was a flurry of activity as 120 students jockeyed for the top spot in each of a number of MESA competitions.
Maricela, 13, said she picked the eye project because it relates to her goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.
Seventh-grader Rafael Chavez, 13, tested his glider of balsa wood, glue and clay.
"I have a fear of flying but, for some reason, this interested me," said Rafael, who wants to be a chemist. "I did this last trimester, so I had a little bit better experience."
Students working on gliders study engineering concepts like air resistance, drag, aerodynamics, lift and force. The contest is to build a glider that travels the farthest.
Other projects included a prosthetic arm, robotics, bridge-building and mousetrap car competition. The top finishers in each will compete in the preliminary round in March at California State University, Fresno.
Valentina Mascorro, who established MESA in the Los Banos Unified School District, said the junior high team always performs well on the math-test portion of competition and is looking to improve on the hands-on contests.
MESA is about engineering, but it's also about getting students to think about college. The program offers periodic field trips to colleges and science institutes, students must maintain a 3.3 grade-point average or better to participate.
Los Banos Junior High was awarded "School of the Year" at the 2012 contest. The district and individual students also won dozens of other awards. Four local sixth-graders will join the scores of junior high and high school students this year.
Science teacher Howard Wilson said some students come from families working in science, technology, engineering or math fields, but not all.
"Most of our students are from just regular parents that want to see their kids get a more grounded education in the math and sciences," Wilson said, adding the first crop of Los Banos MESA students have graduated and started college.
"There's lots of different fields they go into other than engineering," he said.
Martha Santoyo, 19, was part of the first class of MESA students at the junior high in 2006-07. The freshman at the University of California at Merced regularly attends MESA events in Los Banos, she said.
Neither of her parents went to college, she said, but they motivated her. Santoyo said MESA played a large part in her path to college.
"It really gave me confidence and motivation to actually work for it," said Santoyo, a business major. "I saw that putting in effort was going to pay off."
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.