I served as a judge for the Maryland History Day competition last weekend, for the Senior Individual Exhibit category. My two judging colleagues and I saw 7 different projects, with topics ranging from Thomas Paine to Eleanor Roosevelt to Sir Francis Drake to Bill Gates. As in all competitions, some were better than others. All of the students were well-versed in their subject matter and for the most part, could answer all of the history-based questions we asked them. I was very encouraged to see that an interest in history and historical research is alive and well in the younger generations.Some trends I noticed:
1. Each student selected their topic because of a personal interest they had. One student chose a Polish Jewish soldier from the Holocaust because she, herself, was both Polish and Jewish. Another selected Sir Francis Drake because Drake appeared in one of his favorite video games and he wanted to learn more about him! This reinforces the theory that history museums should look for a hook to interest younger students by making history applicable to the kids’ own lives. Family heritage, video games, newly-released movies – they can all be used to capture a kid’s attention.
2. The students were very good at recounting the facts – they weren’t as good as putting their historical figure into a larger historical context. This is partially their age, but I saw the potential for them to dig much deeper — and thereby gaining a deeper understanding — if they had someone to guide them with their analysis. This is a role museums could play for students in their community schools.
3. Most students understood the difference between primary and secondary sources, even though they accessed many of their primary sources online. One of my judging colleagues was distressed over the fact that kids today “don’t even know where the library is.” That didn’t concern me as much as the kids who didn’t understand that wikipedia isn’t a reliable web source for historical research. The times are changing, and everything is now online. I’d rather kids be able to perform a proper web search to locate digitized primary sources. This is another area museums should consider…do you have a plan for digitizing your artifacts and posting them online? Doing so makes them accessible to the entire world – pretty amazing for a small museum, huh?!
The National History Day competition is in June at the University of Maryland, and I look forward to seeing the best of the best of what our nation’s students have to offer.
Consider getting involved in your local History Day competition next year. Many schools still aren’t participating – get your local schools involved and help foster an interest in history in tomorrow’s museum leaders and historians!
History Day information: http://www.nationalhistoryday.org/