The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When documenting history leads to awards, and dollars

It pays to learn history.

At least it has for dozens of high school and middle school students who scooped up National History Day awards — and cash prizes — for their projects, papers, documentaries and performances on such wide-ranging topics as the arrival of ballet in America, the changing role of women during World War II, the plight of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl refugees and the history of Route 66.

More than 600,000 students entered the 42nd annual Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest this year. The field was later winnowed to 3,000, and last week those students presented their projects at the University of Maryland, where more than 400 panelists judged the work and handed out $150,000 in prizes and scholarships to 85 first-, second- and third-place winners.

“We want to create the next generation of thoughtful and engaged students,” says Cathy Gorn, National History Day’s executive director. “The contest encourages kids to study history and helps them understand how the past is still relevant.”

The students compete in five categories — documentaries, exhibits, papers, performances, and websites — and the theme of this year’s contest was Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History. All categories have a junior (middle school) and senior (high school) division.

This year’s entries included fascinating projects such as a documentary on the history of sugar by Aditya Ailiani of Onalaska, Wisc. The 10-minute film, “The Journey of Sugar: Neither Short nor Sweet,” won first place in the Senior Individual Documentary category.

The winners in the junior group documentary were middle-schoolers Eleanor McCoy and Genevieve Haskins of Columbus, Ga., for their film, When Ballet Came to America. The film chronicles the first tour of the Ballet Russes to America in 1916-1917 and the impact this had on the art form in the United States.

One of the most provocative titles among the winners this year is “Fifteen Cents to See Infants on Display,” a project by high schoolers Gabrielle Hines and Jennifer Gilby of Palm Harbor University High School in Palm Harbor, Fla. The project looks at the early 20th century work of a neonatologist, Dr. Martin A Couney, who took babies born prematurely and created boardwalk sideshows where he educated the public on how to care for them and tried to broaden the public’s mindset.

The Visionary Exploration of Jacques Cousteau: Changing Perceptions of the Ocean Through Undersea Encounters, a website created by Sovigne Gardner and Grace Gardner of St. Paul, Minn., took first place in the Senior Group Website category. First place in the Junior Group Website category went to Sophia Burick, Kelly McDonald and Katherine McKernan, middle-schoolers from San Clemente, Calif., for their site, Feminists in Flight: Exploring Gender Equality at 32,000 feet.

The cash prizes are a good motivation, Gorn says, but a bigger deal for the students is “being able to say that they are a National History Day champion. Past winners come back and they often tell us that it was the most important thing they did in school.”

See a Complete list of National History Day winners here.