Maci Butchert and Sierra Vargas are pretty sure they never want to climb Mount Everest.
“I want to go see it and would like to meet everyone, like the Sherpas,” said Vargas. “But the chance that I could get frostbite or have a brain swell ...”
“Or get altitude sick,” Butchert added.
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Butchert and Vargas are kind of experts on Mount Everest. The Cedarwood Elementary fourth-graders have spent most of the 2015-16 school year studying the world’s tallest peak — specifically, the pollution created by the hundreds of hikers who attempt to scale it each year — for National History Day.
The national competition, which begins at the county level, encourages students to research, analyze, interpret and draw conclusions about a historical topic of their choice that relates to an annual theme. Students then present their findings in a project.
This year’s theme was “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History.”
Several Clovis Unified schools sent students to the Fresno County and California state competitions this spring. Butchert and Vargas, along with a group of Buchanan High students, came home as champions in their respective categories at the state competition last month. In addition, Cedarwood fifth-grader Samuel Karlson and Gettysburg Elementary’s Evan Nelson also placed well in the competition, receiving runners up awards for their individual projects in the elementary division.
Butchert and Vargas began working on their project in October, which gave them six months to prepare for the county-level competition. But they were thinking about History Day long before October. Both girls have older sisters who have taken their History Day projects to the state competition, though none won.
“I wanted to beat her,”Vargas said of her older sister, who also competed in the state competition as a fourth-grader.
“I wanted to beat my sisters also,” Butchert agreed.
But it takes more than sibling rivalry to succeed in National History Day. An extracurricular activity at many district schools, it challenges students to go above and beyond the demands of a typical classroom assignment.
“I’ve always said History Day was Common Core before Common Core was a (concept),” said Sarah Samuelian. The sixth-grade teacher has been coordinating National History Day at Cedarwood for the past five years.
That’s because many of the concepts emphasized in the Common Core curriculum have always been part of National History Day. Participants are required to use a minimum of two primary sources when conducting their research. In addition to their project, they prepare an annotated bibliography and process paper for their judges. There’s also an interview with the judging panel.
Butchert and Vargas considered a few different ideas before hitting on their topic, “The Impact of Exploring Mount Everest.”
“We looked into ... women in space, and coral beaches,” said Vargas, “and then Ms. Samuelian told us about Mount Everest and we were like, ‘whoa.’”
“And then we found out about the pollution problem,” said Butchert.
“I didn’t even know that Mount Everest had a pollution problem. I always thought it was a beautiful mountain,” said Vargas. “I started looking at books and actually found out how much trash there was because of the human pollution. It’s actually poisoning the sherpas’ water supplies.”
“We learned a lot,” said Vargas. “We’re usually just looking stuff up for fun, or in class we’re doing the work they’re telling us to do, but when we’re able to research we’re able to go into more things. We’re able to learn so much more on the computer and about how to use books in the library.”
One of the things students learn is how to choose credible primary sources. “There’s no Wikipedia, no Ask.com,” said Samuelian.
Butchert and Vargas were able to find several primary sources for their project, entitled “The Impact of Exploring Mount Everest.” The girls watched documentaries, studied photographs and articles and even interviewed — via Skype — a man who had climbed Mount Everest. They presented their findings on a 2-dimensional project board.
Their Cedarwood History Day teammate, Samuel Karlson, was a runner up at the state competition for his project on Marco Polo. Although he admitted it was a challenge to find multiple primary sources for his topic, he was able to demonstrate his knowledge of Marco Polo’s accomplishments and place them in their proper historical context, connecting them to present day events.
Making those connections, said Sameulian, is a big part of National History Day.
“It’s more than just a history project,” she explained, “It’s how does it impact the world and how did Marco Polo really impact it, what did he change, what did we learn from it? And the same thing for Mount Everest.”
The state competition was the end of the road for Butchert, Karlson and Vargas. Fourth- and fifth-graders do not move on to the national competition, as not all states offer a History Day competition at the elementary level. However, as sixth-graders they’ll be able to compete in the junior division, and will have the option of choosing a different medium for showcasing their research.
Junior (sixth through eighth grades) and senior (ninth through 12th grades) divisions compete in one of five categories: documentary, exhibit, paper, performance or website.
A group of five Buchanan sophomores took top honors for their performance, “American Exodus: The Oakies’ Exploration, Encounter and Exchange in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Matthew Clark, Austin Cozzi, Kelsey Ewing, Allison Hodge and Sydney Fox will represent California at the National History Day competition in College Park, Maryland. They’re advised by Debbie Hodge, an Alta Sierra teacher and Buchanan area History Day coordinator (she’s also Allison Hodge’s mother).
It will be a return trip for several. Most of the team members have been participating in National History Day since middle school, some since elementary. This year, however, is the first in which the five have competed together as a team.
“I started doing musical theater when I was 6 years old, so when I came into middle school and found out you could do a performance as a History Day project, I just immediately said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’” said Fox. However, she added, “acting is the easier part. Writing the script, coming up with an idea from scratch is a little harder. That’s where I wanted to get in with a group instead of just doing an individual project.”
The group spent several months studying their topic, the migration of poor migrants from Oklahoma and other nearby states to the Central Valley during the Dust Bowl.
Their research turned up some surprises.
Fox found out her grandfather had been part of the Dust Bowl migration, moving with his family from Oklahoma to California when he was 3 years old.
“That was amazing,” she said. “I didn’t even know he was from Oklahoma. History Day just leads you to discover things you never would have known.”
In their 10-minute performance, the students portrayed an “Okie” family journeying from Texas to Central California and the struggles and opposition they faced as migrants. They connected those struggles to the ones faced by today’s immigrants.
“Obviously,” Allison Hodge added, “migration is one of the biggest debated topics of today’s society. In our History Day project we’re not supposed to show our own opinion but it’s interesting to get people to think about that to get that idea in their head.”
The team is busy fine-tuning their project and performance to debut at the national competition later this month. It’s intimidating, they said, having to compete against students from all 50 states and several territories and countries — but it’s also exciting.
“Obviously we don’t know what type of competition there’s going to be,” said Allison, “but we’re hoping for the best.”
If nothing else, they’ve learned how past events continue to resonate even as time marches on.
“History repeats itself,” Clark said. “We’ve seen through the course of many years it always does, and today we’re facing it again. It’s not the Okies this time, it’s different minority groups, but it’s very similar and that’s why I think history is so important.”
The Buchanan High School National History Day team has set up a Go Fund Me fundraiser to help cover travel expenses to the national competition in College Park, Maryland, June 12-17. They are also hosting a fundraising poker tournament at The 500 Club on June 4. For more information, visit www.gofundme.com/nhdteam2016.