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Lessons from the past: Students from across state showcase historical research

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The National History Day regional competition awards ceremony was held at the new ECU Student Center on Thursday. The event had over 300 middle and high school students who participated in presenting their history projects. This year's theme was Triumph and and Tragedy.

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Friday, March 22, 2019

More than 300 students from 18 different North Carolina counties presented their historical research to judges during the National History Day regional competition at East Carolina University. 

“National History Day is basically like a science fair but with historical projects, “ said Jessica Kestler, the competition’s co-coordinator. “Students do research on a project that fits into the annual theme we have each year and they can choose to present their historical research in five project categories.”

Categories include original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries. 

Alexandra Jackson, a junior at D.H. Conley High School who won first place in the senior exhibit category, researched the Salem Witch Trials. 

“I tried to determine whether mass hysteria or actual witchcraft happened,” Jackson said.  “I didn’t honestly think I was going to win so it’s like really surprising, like really shocking.”

For her exhibit, Jackson said that she had to spend months finding photographs and conducting historical research. 

“I had to look up primary sources; reliable sources and try to find reliable information and pictures that I could put on this board,” Jackson said. 

Her history teacher, Eric Sawyer, said he was elated and proud of Jackson and all of the other students who participated in the competition. 

“As a teacher, it’s always great to see kids feel like they’re being successful and there’s nothing better than that,” Sawyer said. “As a history teacher, I love history. It’s a passion and it’s great to see them love it and participate in it. And they do such great research and such great projects and are extremely creative.”

In addition to D.H. Conley winning awards, students from J.H. Rose got high marks in the competition as well. 

J.H. Rose High School Juniors Emily Schmidht and Ruiko Jacobs created a website featuring Dolley Payne Madison, the wife of former U.S. President James Madison.

“She saved George Washington’s portrait during the war of 1812,” Schmidt said. Schmidht and Ruiko spent several months conducting research and adding content to their website with last month being the most grueling.

“February was definitely a month where almost every night we’d add some stuff to the project. It was definitely very time consuming but well worth it,” Schmidt said.

After winning an award for their project, Ruiko said she felt relieved.

“I feel like we deserve it because we’ve worked so hard at it,” Ruiko said.

Sophomores Kamille Smith and Bryce Herring from Goldsboro’s Wayne School of Engineering also won for a documentary they did on the Vietnam War.

“We did our project on Catherine Leroy who was a Vietnam war photographer and she was one of the first female war photographers in Vietnam,” Sophomore Bryce Herring said.  “And her photographs really changed things in Vietnam. She really paved the way for a bunch of other female war photographers and she won multiple awards for her work.”

With regionals behind them, Thursday’s winners will move on to the state competition. 

“Students compete at our regional level and the students that place in first, second and third in their category can move on to the state level competition and from there, they have the option to go to the national level,” Kestler said.

The annual event not only affords students the chance to learn about history but also allows for them to gain public speaking skills and collaborate in a professional and academic setting.    

“It’s very important because students get the opportunity to do historical research and then present their work to a professional audience,” Kestler said. “They get that public speaking experience as well as they understand the historical process. They also get a lot of project-based learning skills.”

Another advantage is that students who may not have plans or the financial means to attend a university can learn about opportunities that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to. 

“Because of the counties that our region makes up, we get a lot of students that might not come to a university otherwise,” Kestler said.  

“They get exposure to a university setting in the hopes to inspire them to want to continue doing well in school and then come to a university,” she said. 

The community also benefits from the daylong event. 

“It’s also a really great opportunity for community members to come out and volunteer to judge,” Kestler said. “We get a lot community volunteers to come out to help judge projects and interact with students and ask them about their research.  It’s just a really rewarding experience all the way around.”

This year’s theme was Triumph and tragedy.  Kestler said she saw quite a few projects that dealt with space exploration, 9/11 and World War II. 

14 schools from across 18 different counties participated in the event. 

“We had quite the turnout and we’re very, very pleased with how much turnout we had this year,” Kestler said. 

According to the ECU Department of History’s website, National History Day is a highly regarded academic program for middle and secondary school students. Each year, more than half a million students nationwide participate in the competition.

To learn more, visit www.ecu.edu or call 328- 6155. 

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566.  

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