Her brown hair swinging into her face, fifth-grader Rachel Kreft bent over the square of painted plywood and carefully sketched the snowmen scene she had designed for a mural celebrating Running Brook Elementary School's 30th anniversary and the millennium.

Around her, classmates giggled and chatted Tuesday as their drawings of beach and jungle scenes, baseballs and basketballs, and abstract designs slowly transformed the interlocking squares that made up the 8-by-12-foot mural lying on the cafeteria floor of the Columbia school.

Rachel, 10, paused to carefully consider what had inspired her to draw snowmen surrounding a child sledding down a steep hill. "Usually when I'm in lunch, I think about snowy days and what I would do. That's probably what we would do all day," she said. "When you're inside, you think of outside. I like thinking of winter because it's my favorite season."

Her design is one of more than two dozen created by fourth- and fifth-grade students selected to design the mural as part of a cultural arts project sponsored by the school PTA. When completed next week, the mural will be hung on the wall outside the school's entrance and will commemorate its 30th anniversary next fall. The budding artists were working under the direction of John Viles, a Baltimore artist chosen by the PTA to serve as artist in residence for the project.

The PTA's cultural arts program sponsors an arts project annually at the school and chose Viles through a state arts program. The project, expected to cost about $2,000, was funded through money raised by the PTA and a matching state grant, said PTA Treasurer Linda Tomlinson.

This year, the group decided to have students create a permanent work of art that would create a sense of pride and "leave a legacy to the school," she said.

Viles, who frequently works with schools on similar projects, said he saw the mural as an opportunity to teach students about creating public art. He began the project several weeks ago by shooting pictures of school locations suitable for a mural. He then made color photocopies of the pictures and asked the students to design murals for the location they liked best.

The results ranged from horizontal scenes that could grace a wall to designs that climbed up a column or surrounded it in the form of a bench.

"I'm the director here, they're the designers," said Viles, 42, as he surveyed the students' drawings. "This kind of thing gets students to think beyond their little box, and that's what I'm trying to do."

The project originally called for students to choose just one of their classmates' designs for the mural, but then some suggested the creation of interlocking squares so all of the designs could be used, Viles said.

"Each person got a section to paint their own design, which is good, because it is more of a collaborative design," he said.

The change in plans required some students to revise their designs. Fifth-graders Joy Reinhardt, 11, Becky Rothwell, 10, and Amy Butler, 10, had designed a mural of faces representing the school's diversity that was to be painted on a bench surrounding a column near the school's main office.

After some thought, they broke their project into separate parts by putting the faces in one square, brightly colored stripes in another and sunbursts of color in a third.

Fourth-grader Emily Shipp, 9, found she had enough space in her square to add some optical illusions to the brightly colored shapes that made up her design.

"I just kind of thought of shapes because I like playing around with shapes," she said. "So I thought if I put them together, they would look pretty weird and they would represent people, how they're all different shapes and colors, but they're still together."

Viles said he hoped the project would teach students all about the process of creating public art, such as the need to be flexible and redesign if necessary.

That lesson wasn't lost on Emily and her classmates as they sketched and erased and sketched again.

"Sometimes when I make shapes, they look really cool. Sometimes they turn out like a bunch of squiggly lines. So I just make more lines," she said.