Stuyvesant Seniors Compete in the National History Day Competition
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Stuyvesant students competed in the 2023 National History Day (NHD) competition, which took place in June in Washington D.C., with a record number of students placing in the national competition. There are five different creative categories in the National History Day competition: Documentary, Exhibit, Performance, Website, and Paper, each offering group and individual options. Participants choose a topic and dive deep into the past by conducting research in various areas and presenting conclusions and evidence while being evaluated by historians and educators. The theme for this year’s competition was “Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas.”
In the Senior Group Exhibit category, seniors Giles El-Assal, Daniel Murdoch, and Kaeden Ruparel placed first. In the Individual Exhibit category, junior Benjamin Goihman placed first. In the Group Performance category, seniors Vanessa Chen, Carol Hon, Lucas McGarvey, Dylan Ma, and William Tang placed first. In the Senior Group Website category, seniors Mary Lee, Mehjabin Rahman, Jowita Walkup, and Sophia Zheng placed third.
Students who participated in the competition were mentored by social studies teachers Robert Sandler and Mordecai Moore. Students in Sandler’s AP U.S. History classes have been participating in the NHD competition since 2016. “I was looking for something new that would allow students to conduct their own research and go in-depth into specific historical topics,” Sandler said. “I also liked the idea of my students after researching had the choice to create a documentary, an exhibit board, a website, or a performance.”
Though Moore was previously involved in NHD through his previous teaching career at the High School of Economics and Finance, he is especially impressed by the sheer effort that Stuyvesant students dedicate to their projects. “What I enjoyed most [...] was the seriousness with which students approached the research they did before even creating their projects,” Moore said. “With this level of research, students had a plethora of information [...] to draw upon so that projects which looked appealing to the eye were also substantive in nature.”
Participants were able to navigate parts of history that are not traditionally taught at school and shine a light on pioneering moments that stood out to them as particularly avant-garde. “Our project is about the development of the television and focuses on two key figures who brought it into the market, David Sarnoff and Philo Farnsworth,” Ma said. “In summary, our performance covers Sarnoff’s life story, as well as the process [through] which he was able to wrest the patenting rights for the television from Farnsworth––we felt like that was a frontier in that such practices had never been employed previously.”
Students initially began working on their projects in school but quickly began setting up interviews and visiting historical institutions throughout the city as part of their efforts to gather research. For example, El-Assal, Murdoch, and Ruparel received the opportunity to schedule an interview with an expert pertaining to their project, which focused on how the Brooklyn Bridge broke frontiers in engineering and social rights. “We interviewed a Roebling descendant,” El-Assal said. “Going to the archive was an experience I’ve never had before.”
Aside from finalists, other groups that worked on NHD projects received the opportunity to travel throughout the country to enhance their research. Seniors Justin Ha and Michael Huang were offered a paid trip from Schreiner University to explore the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. “They spent months researching the role of the battle of the Alamo in westward expansion and America’s identity, and they made such a lasting impression on a scholar from Schreiner University, that the college paid for Michael and Justin’s plane tickets and hotel and gave them a private tour of the monument,” Sandler said.
Furthermore, students made sure to skillfully incorporate physical elements into their projects in order to stand out from other participants. This was an essential component for students who submitted in the Senior Group Exhibit category, so El-Assal, Murdoch, and Ruparel put tremendous effort into designing an eye-catching board as part of their exhibit. “The centerpiece we made is this little wooden bridge that came out of the board,” El-Assal said. “That was the wow factor.”
Dylan Ma, winning first place in the Group Performance Category, expresses how his group’s clever integration of primary sources into their script mainly helped them distinguish themselves. “I think the [most impressive] part of our performance was our elaborate setup, as we used a lot of props—however, I think something else that played a significant role was the way in which we incorporated primary sources into our script, which probably helped us stand out in the interviews,” Ma said.
Regardless of unique points setting groups apart during NHD, all contestants had to endure similar levels of judging before proceeding onto the next round. “The national tournament is two days long—the first day is [when] all of the projects are judged. Then, after the preliminary round of judging is finished, the finalists will be announced and they will be called back for a second day of judging,” Ma said. “On the first day, we began by transferring all of our props from the site of the competition, an auditorium on the campus. After that, the judges reviewed our performance and interviewed us; later that day, we were notified if we were moving forward to the next round.”
Though NHD shared many similarities with its smaller regional competitions, its location in Washington D.C. allowed Stuyvesant students to form connections with students throughout the country. “During the downtime students had at nationals, because it is located very close to Washington D.C., students can and did take advantage of that opportunity to do some sightseeing of places such as the National Archives, the Smithsonian’s American History museum as well as other institutions in our nation’s capital,” Moore said. “Every student at [the competition] was given a bag of pins representing their state, and students take these pins and exchange them. It’s really fun to see the excitement that our students got from exchanging these pins and meeting students from parts of the United States and the world that they otherwise would never have interacted with potentially had they not been at NHD nationals.”
Additionally, Moore is starting a NHD club this upcoming school year to involve more students, including those he does not teach, in the competition. “[The club] will potentially meet up to three days after school where students can drop in and either meet with me or their classmates as they develop their History Day projects,” Moore said. “This is in addition to my offering students who take my AP classes the opportunity to create an individual or group project for NHD.”
Overall, Sandler and Moore are highly pleased with the exploration and effort their students put into the competition. “[Though] I was unable to go to the state competition in person, I watched a video of my students and was blown away by their exhilarating performance,” Sandler said.
Regardless of how far along students advanced in each NHD competition, including the school-level, city-level, or state-level competitions, Moore feels extremely proud of the amount of work that participants devoted to their projects. “I love when students have projects that win, whether it is at Stuy Day or New York City History Day or the state and/or national level of the History Day competition,” Moore said. “Being able to tell students that their efforts were recognized by others in the form of winning the competition made me happy.”