The 12 juniors walked into John Ensor's Energy, Power and Transportation class and felt pretty confident.
The students knew they were going to have to build a car at the end of the year; they figured it would be easy. Four classes had done it before them, left behind their finished work and passed on helpful hints. The project seemed to be losing a little of its challenge.
Then Ensor told them this year's project was going to be a little different. Instead of building a fast and sleek race car to burn rubber around a high school track, they would be putting together a rugged all-terrain vehicle to benefit someone in need.
"I liked this so much better," said River Hill High School junior Clayton Alsup. "The other one was kind of boring because it's been done so many times."
Once all the red tape and liability issues are worked out, the class will donate its electrically powered project to help disabled middle school pupils participate in outdoor camps and on nature trails.
"I think it's wonderful," said Mary Hoy, an outdoor school educator at Westminster's Camp Hashawha, which will receive the 350-pound roadster when the class is finished. "When we have kids that have broken legs or some kind of handicap, they bring their wheelchairs and we have to push them around the trails. Sometimes we have to take shorter trails, and many times they have to miss some of the things they should be seeing."
If all goes well, there will be no more of that, the students said.
"That was kind of the inspiration [behind the project]," said River Hill junior Crystal Healy. "So those students can participate."
Last week, Healy and the rest of the Energy, Power and Transportation (EPT) class from the county's technology magnet program took their "EPT Cruiser" to the camp to see if their eight weeks of researching, designing, welding, assembling and modifying had paid off.
They enlisted 12-year-old Danny Nairn, brother of classmate Pat Nairn, and sat him in the seat, with one bandaged leg propped up on a leg rest. Armed with clipboards and keen eyes, they watched as he chugged up and down hills, crushing buttercups and barely feeling the stones and tree roots protruding from the ground.
"This is awesome," Danny said.
Along the way, the juniors shouted to each other about gear ratios and voltage, suspension, differential and torque. Just as they had assumed, the car had to work too hard to get up hills, and a student scribbled that down.
Afterward, the students huddled and discussed what to do to improve the EPT Cruiser.
They want to add more pull to help the car get up bumpy hills. Maybe an emergency brake for the steep rides down. They want to make the frame lighter, and they want to paint the body.
"We also want to waterproof it," said junior James Pittiglio of Long Reach. "The circuit board could get water in it and that could kill it, basically."
The students said they will continue to work on the car until the end of the school year, even through exams, to make sure they get it right.
They are determined that no middle-schooler will have to beg out of a nature hike because of a twisted ankle or broken toe again.
But the class members' motivation is not all charitable. They also want their built-from-the-ground-up car to be the best one ever devised.
"When we get into college, when someone asks, `What kind of engineering have you done?' we can say we've done a whole project," said Jatin Shah of River Hill.