In one corner of Phil Arnold’s classroom at the Career and Technology Center, two students work to build a model of a special-needs school.

On the other side of the classroom, Joe Kincaid puts the finishing touches on an augmented reality app he built in three days.

Two seats down, Nina Crosby Walton is designing a model settlement on Mars.

The projects in Arnold’s class this time of year are as varied as they are ambitious. The classroom looks akin to Tony Stark’s basement in an “Iron Man” movie. Students design and program robots. They design intergalactic settlements. There’s also a nearly 10-foot, man-powered submarine.

“This is why I don’t pick their projects,” Arnold said after seeing Kincaid’s app. “All I would do is limit them.”

Nearly all of Arnold’s students in his Computer-Aided Design course are preparing projects — some of which are two years in the making — for a statewide or national competition. Some of them have already won gold medals in the state Skills USA competition, which doesn’t happen until April 13, and will move onto the national competition.

Brooklyn Poff and Robert Wilson, who were part of a team that won the 2017 LearningSCAPES national competition for their project redesigning Middletown High School, are now working to design their second school — this one from scratch.

Poff and Wilson got their inspiration to design the Hawking Academy — named after the famed physicist Stephen Hawking — from the real-life school construction project for Rock Creek School in Frederick. Like Rock Creek, the Hawking Academy is designed for students with special needs.

On Thursday, Poff and Wilson left class around 9 a.m. to meet with Frederick County Public Schools central office staff and sit in on a design meeting for Rock Creek School.

“It’s a great experience for us to be involved in the process,” Poff said. “It also shows that FCPS likes the work we’ve done, and that we’re doing something right.”

The team of students is building a three-dimensional printed model of the school to present it in competition later this year. One of the challenges in designing a school for students with disabilities is ensuring there is enough space for the students to move throughout the hallways.

Poff and her team did an experiment where they sat in wheelchairs in a hallway that met the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and found that even hallways that meet those standards can present challenges. So the team’s design incorporates much wider hallways than are typically used.

“It was pretty hard to turn in the chair and have the space to get access to everything you need,” Poff said. “It just shows how difficult it is when you only meet the minimum standard.”

Crosby Walton, meanwhile, is preparing for the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, where she will unveil her project designing a settlement on Mars.

Crosby Walton is designing a bare-bones habitat that could sustain life for 12 astronauts on Mars. She has designed several podlike “homes” that would be built into the ground and covered with 3-D printed ice, and special cushions to shield the astronauts from the radiation on Mars. She is also designing a greenhouse that would be used to grow food on the planet.

Crosby Walton is still working on a solution for water, but the ideal solution would be to have an unmanned rover dig underground to find out if there is fresh water on the planet.

Last year, Crosby Walton completed a project designing the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Her project earned national recognition and an invite to the American Institute of Architects national conference in Orlando, Florida, where Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker.

Her project last year incorporated a virtual reality tour of the library, but this year, Kincaid, a senior at Middletown High School, offered to help add augmented reality into her project. Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world.

In three days, the future New Jersey Institute of Technology student designed and built an app that uses the phone camera to look at a specific object and show the person on the phone the floor plans and design of the project.

Kincaid used Crosby Walton’s library project as a test run. He linked a picture of the presidential seal to Crosby Walton’s floor plans, so any time he looked at the presidential seal on the phone, he could see all three floors and the roof of the library design.

“It sounds a lot cooler than it is,” Kincaid said of designing the app.

Crosby Walton hopes to use a photo of Mars on a brochure about her project. And when people pick up the brochure and download the app, they will be able to look at the photo and see her project’s design on their phone.

“The best part about this job is you get to find what a kid is passionate about, and then just let them go,” Arnold said. “Just get out of their way.”

Follow Allen Etzler on Twitter: @AllenWEtzler.

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