Hiltoppers know their history

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By Kirsten Laskey

History holds some fascinating stories and a group of Los Alamos High School students are sharing a few of these tales, from a group of poverty-stricken Pennsylvania miners with criminal intentions to two estranged countries opening up to diplomatic relations through a game of ping-pong.

These students not only caught people’s attention to these moments in history, but they also won awards.

Shannon Burns, Ellen Rabin and Hannah DeNevers all won first place in the New Mexico History Day State Competition, held April 25. As a result, Burns, Rabin and DeNevers, and their stories will travel to the National History Day competition, which will be held June 15-19 at the University of Maryland.

At the state level, Burns earned first place in the senior individual documentary while Rabin and DeNevers teamed up to win first place in the senior group exhibit.

The theme of both competitions is “conflict and compromise.”

Burns presented this theme through a documentary, titled, “Molly’s Children: American Irish Mining Conflict.”

She explained her project examines an organization called the Molly Maguires, a criminal gang made up of Irish immigrants who worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. While the gang was viewed as terrorists, Burns said she also looks at the coal industry and how it paid its workers extremely low wages and offered a hazardous working environment.

In addition to looking at the two sides, Burns said she analyzed their contribution to the history in the area.

Burns said she was interested in this topic “because I’m Irish/American, so I’m really interested in my family’s background, and anything to do with the Irish. Plus, my mom’s family is from Pennsylvania.”

Rabin’s and DeNevers’ group exhibit is titled, “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” The exhibit discusses how this game affected the world today.

Rabin said in 1971, the Chinese government invited American ping-pong players to play in China.

The invitation, she said, was significant because it was the first time the American press was allowed into China since the communist government took control.

The following year, Rabin said, President Richard Nixon traveled to China.

Rabin explained they chose this because “That’s what we’re interested in – Chinese history.”

Burns and Rabin are experienced competitors in the state and national history day competitions.

After learning about her win at the state level, Burns said, “I was really excited.” She said last year, she competed in the junior division and was unsure of how intense the competition would be at the senior level this year.

To win at state and go on to nationals felt like a major accomplishment, she said.

Rabin was also pleased with her results at the state level. “It felt great,” she said. After seeing the other exhibits, Rabin said she was unsure of what the results would be because the other entries were very high quality.

As first-place winners, the LAHS students were awarded $100.

Although, neither has placed at the national level, they said it is a great experience.

“I’ve been doing history day for three years,” Burns said. She explained a social studies teacher required her class to participate in the competition. Last year, Burns won first-place, at the state level, and advanced to the national competition. Although she didn’t win at the national level, Burns was a runner-up for a special award, the Irish American History Award.

She described it as a “really fun competition.”

Rabin and DeNevers have also competed in the state competition for three years.

Rabin, who competed in the individual division last year, also went on to the national competition last year, and in 2006.

She described the competition as tough, but said she went to the competition last year knowing more of what to expect.

This year, Rabin said she and her teammate probably will not win, but they will have an entry to compete with and one to be proud of.

Burns also said the national competition was a learning experience. She said she learned more about what the judges look for in the entries.

Burns, who presented the same documentary last year as this year, expanded on her research. She even visited the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, Penn.

“I always love learning more about Irish/American history,” she said.

The National History Day competition is 30 years old, Trevor Carter, New Mexico state coordinator for National History Day, said.

She said it started out as a one-day event but blossomed into a competition that 49 states participate in, and is almost worldwide.

Participants can compete in a number of ways; they can show work through an exhibit, documentary, performance, paper or website.

They are asked to do some “deep thinking,” Carter said. For instance, primary and secondary research is required.

Projects need to follow a theme, which is different each year. The theme, she said, is broad enough so students can apply it to any country.

Students who win first through third place in the history competitions in their state are eligible to enter the national competition.

For New Mexico, Carter said 300 students went to the state event, which was held at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

About 60 of those participants will be going to nationals, she said.

Winning nationals isn’t the main object Carter said, it’s “really more about the experience.”

“I think a few valuable things, educationally, are that it gives kids experience doing deep research ee it asks them to do a very extensive bibliography and then asks them to do higher level thinking,” Carter said.

Students need to take their knowledge and synthesize it into a product, she added.

“It’s really about finding out why things happen,” Carter said.

For the winners at the national competition, they will be awarded medals and scholarships.