The school's Kinetic Sculpture Race team will race a turtle in this year's event, scheduled for June 14.
Before the American Visionary Art Museum postponed its 17th annual Kinetic Sculpture Race on May 2 following unrest in Baltimore City, the members of the Arbutus Middle School Kinetic Sculpture Race Team were quite excited about getting on the road in their homemade mobile artwork.
With an extra month's wait, they're itching to make their 2015 debut in the race, now set for June 14.
At a team meeting last week, the after-school club practiced getting their car-sized turtle sculpture out of the school tech room in which it was built and taking it for a test drive.
Despite some collisions with the ceiling and some steering difficulties, the team was confident it is ready for Baltimore's most unusual race.
One of only a few schools that participate in the annual event, the project has begun to garner the school on Shelbourne Road some attention.
In 2013, a student at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County, heard about the team and decided to produce a feature-length documentary about its effort, following the kids from the beginning of the building process all the way through race day.
Another UMBC student saw the school's team at the race a couple years ago and decided to intern at the school.
Science department chairman Michael Guarraia, who supervises the after-school club, said he heard a kid along the race route one year tell his mother that he couldn't wait to be old enough so he go to Arbutus Middle School, which draws students from both Catonsville and Arbutus.
"It's definitely an identifying part of the school, which I think is cool," Guarraia said. "There's a lot of good school support."
Alana Parker, a seventh-grader from Windsor Mill and a newcomer to the team, said she was looking forward to race day and trying her hand at the course's infamous obstacles, including sand, mud and water.
"I didn't do it last year because I didn't really see it and I didn't really know what it was like," she said. "This year, I had Mr. Guarraia [for a class], and since he's basically the director of the club he talked about it in class and he made it sound really cool.
"I thought, oh, cool, it's got a bunch of building stuff and I like building, so I guess I should sign up with it."
Fellow seventh-grader Grace Morris, who lives in Catonsville, was also excited about her first kinetic race.
At one of her team's last practices, she kept a watchful eye on her own contribution to the school's entry.
As part of the art team, she had helped sew the turtle's legs together and paint its massive shell.
"I like designing and building the sculpture best because I like painting and I like building stuff, so I really liked the building part mostly," she said.
In September, the club began brainstorming designs for its entry for the race. Students were instructed to draw up proposals for the club to vote on. By late September, the decision had come down to a tie between a Mexican-themed sculpture and a turtle.
To appease both sides, the club agreed to build a mobile Mexican turtle, complete with a sombrero and large, flipper-like legs.
Since bribing judges is not only allowed, but encouraged during the race, the team plans to bring food from Taco Bell along on race day to use if need be.
Last year, Guarraia said, they received a penalty because their name — "Swagon," the nickname bestowed upon their prairie-style covered wagon sculpture — being too awesome.
This is the fourth year Arbutus Middle School students have entered the race. Leading the project all four years has been Guarraia, a former engineer with Lockheed Martin. Guarraia had known about the race for years, but never got the chance to enter it until he began teaching at Arbutus Middle School. There, he saw an opportunity to help the students experience something fun and also join with other students with similar interests to create something they will remember for a long time.
Guarraia said the project has been a team effort every year and not just for the students.
In addition to help with approvals and supplies, the school's principal, Michelle Feeney, and a dozen other school staff have shown up to support the team downtown on race day.
The art department plays a big role in the design and creation of the sculpture every year, Guarraia said. For the past two years, art teachers Maria Calvin and Danielle Imhoff have helped with any of the art components of the project.
Help from the local community has also played a big role in the project's success.
The first year Arbutus Middle School decided to enter a vehicle into the race, the students had to come up with a chassis of some kind that would allow access inside the sculpture to sit and pedal the sculpture forward. Eric Bouchat, of Bouchat Industries, helped the team by tweaking the students' design and welding the frame of the club has now used all four years.
The building of the sculpture is always fun, but nothing compares to the excitement of race day, Guarraia said.
This year's kinetic sculpture club has 21 students, a significant increase from the first year in which seven Arbutus Middle School students participated.
The project, Guarraia said, gives students something productive to do after school and a place to make friends.
"We've made it really accessible to kids," he said. Those who stay after school for the program are able to take free late buses home, courtesy of the PTA. The club meets all school year long for one hour after school every Thursday. Although they use the same chassis every year, everything else they must build new. In past years, students have raced a giant crab, a bird's nest and the "Swagon.".
The all-day race takes off every year from AVAM, in Federal Hill. All sculptures must be entirely human-powered and able to travel over land and through the harbor.
From AVAM, sculptures must climb up Federal Hill, race down through the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and out to Canton. At the Canton Waterfront Park, teams enter the water and paddle around the harbor before returning to land and heading to Patterson Park, where they encounter a series of obstacles. When the race teams cross the finish line back at AVAM, they will have traversed a total of 14 miles.
Even though the extra five weeks before racing have brought students' excitement to a maximum, Guarraia said he didn't mind the wait. The new date is just days ahead of the last day of school.
"Quite honestly, it gave us a couple weeks to fine-tune a couple things, which is always good," he said.