Legos in a variety colors, shapes and sizes were scattered across Michael Wade’s desk in his bedroom. He moved swiftly, picking up pieces in front of him and searching for ones in his many drawers filled with even more interlocking plastic bricks.
To the right of him was a Lego neighborhood he had once built, leading off with a scale model of his home in Woodbine.
However, on a Monday afternoon after school, Michael, 16, wasn’t playing with Legos to add to his neighborhood. He was building old Ellicott City.
With brown and teal pieces in his hands, he began to build what would be the scale model of the Phoenix Emporium, a restaurant located at the bottom of Ellicott City’s Main Street. The restaurant would become one of the 16 scale model buildings — from several others along lower Main Street to the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum and ending with the iconic red and gold Ellicott City bridge — that Michael was creating.
A year’s worth of work and research has finally brought him to his final step, creating a scale model of the old mill town.
As a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge High School, Michael has been researching floodwater reduction strategies specifically for Ellicott City, as it has faced catastrophic flooding in 2016 and 2018. He is enrolled in Paul Eckert’s independent research class through the Marriott Ridge Gifted and Talented education program.
Eckert’s students, primarily freshmen and sophomores, choose their own research topics. In September, the students explored their interests and worked through a series of exercises to narrow down their subjects.
Michael chose to tackle Ellicott City because of his interest in architecture and engineering. In the beginning, however, he didn’t know where to start his research.
“I initially started looking at everything wrong with the area to see if you can actually stop the flooding [completely], which I learned you can’t, but you can protect the town better,” he said. “I used that as a jumping point.”
As Michael was doing his own research, Howard County spent nearly the past year going through a variety of flood plans, with one first being proposed by then-County Executive Allan Kittleman in August. Kittleman’s proposed plan would have included tearing down 10 buildings on Main Street to limit future flooding.
The chosen plan calls for the razing of four buildings on lower Main Street, a tunnel bored parallel to the lower strip to divert stormwater and the creation of retention ponds, among other projects. The estimated cost of the plan, slated to be completed by mid-2025, falls in the range of $113 million to $140 million.
Michael followed the latest plans closely, even attending a public hearing in the Howard High School cafeteria earlier this month.
“The goal of the class is to research something and approve upon it,” Michael said. “That’s why I chose Ellicott City, because there was a problem that needs to be solved.”
Throughout the year, the students craft their research question, write an annotated bibliography and a literature review, develop their final product and give a presentation before receiving their overall grade.
“As we develop the research question, they hear a lot of me saying, ‘Let’s start with the end in mind, envision the audience and who can you help,’ ” said Eckert, who has been a GT resource teacher for 27 years in the Howard County Public School System.
The students’ research doesn’t have to affect the immediate community or even focus on Howard, though many of the projects tend to do so.
“Every year is different for me,” Eckert said. “Every student in the classroom is different from the student next to them, and it’s really neat to see them come up with an idea, fine-tune it and present it.”
Eckert said he learns about so many different topics each year, from Michael’s Ellicott City model to another student who is researching the treatment of elephants in captivity and how habitats can be made to mirror their natural home.
“They might be sitting next to another person who is looking at the increase of female injuries to ACLs in teens because they might have an experience like that or a family medical condition,” Eckert said.
“By the end of it, they become experts in the field to a large degree.”
The students also are given an adviser, someone who could be local or located across the world, Eckert said. Michael had two advisers within the county’s Department of Public Works.
During Michael’s research process, he went to the flood area of the city where he took a lot of photos to help him visualize his scale model.
Besides Legos, his scale model features soil, rocks that he smashed with a hammer, glue that looks like flowing water, shingle samples to represent roads and more.
The buildings were constructed using Google Maps and Google Earth as a guide, allowing for Michael to make them look as realistic as possible.
Several of the buildings will be able to be removed from the model, so he can demonstrate where floodwater will go with and without the structures in place.
The final leg of the project is for Michael to present his project and year’s worth of research to a relevant and interested audience. He hopes to attend a Historic Preservation meeting in June.
For the exhibition piece, Eckert said his students can present their project to as many or as few people as they want.
“If one thing you research can benefit one person, that is a success,” Eckert said.
Howard County Times reporter Erin B. Logan contributed to this article.