The 29 middle school girls who graduated from the fourth annual Girls in Engineering program Friday described their two weeks on the UC Santa Cruz campus as "awesome," "interesting," "fun," and yes, "inspiring."

The seventh- and eighth-grade girls from schools in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties conducted experiments, built towers with toothpicks and marshmallows, programmed software to control robots, and devised packaging to help an egg survive a plunge from the third floor of the Baskin School of Engineering to the sidewalk below.

With a mix of theory and practice they tested hypotheses on which taut string would allow a deflating balloon to travel faster when attached to a straw sled -- smooth or rough. Smooth won every time.

The program is free for participants and includes transportation and lunch. Along the way they had daily visits from women employed in various engineering fields and enjoyed field trips to such places as Google's campus in Mountain View. The idea is to introduce girls to STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- and get them on track to take the requisite courses in high school.

"It was Peggy's idea,'' said Jack Baskin, of his wife Peggy Downes Baskin. The Baskins have supported the program conducted with UCSC's Educational Partnership Center since it began in 2006.

The couple, generous benefactors of many initiatives at UCSC, was on hand Friday to visit and share lunch with the graduating girls as they perfected their projects for a show-and-tell with their parents later in the afternoon.

Downes Baskin, who taught politics at Santa Clara University for 18 years and also women's studies at UCSC, recalled interviewing successful female executives in Silicon Valley for her 2003 book Beyond Superwoman.

It was clear there was a dearth of women engineers at booming Silicon Valley companies. How can we change that, she asked her sources.

"'Start at middle school, get them started early,'" she recalled the executives telling her. The seed was planted and a couple of years later, with the Baskins' help, Girls in Engineering began. Since then more than 110 girls have participated.

"Engineering is one of the last professions with a shortage of women,'' noted Art Ramirez, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering, in comments on the girls'

final day. "I hope you'll have a desire for engineering in the future," he said.

Gracie Stephens, who will enter the ninth grade as North Monterey County High School late this summer, said she liked chemistry but now is interested in computer programing since working on programming software for a robot. She said she liked testing different ways of accomplishing something.

On the way to lunch, another girl, when Baskin asked her if she wanted to be an engineer, replied "oh, absolutely."

Benefits also extended to UCSC graduates and undergrads who helped guide and mentor the girls. "I love this program," said Jenna French, a 2009 graduate in art history, now in her third year working with the girls. In the fall, she's headed to San Francisco State for a master's program in rehabilitative education.