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Trio of McMurray students take history competition to the next level

Malaika Caldwell, left, and Emma Zimmerman take a look at Caldwell’s History Day exhibit. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Malaika Caldwell, left, and Emma Zimmerman take a look at Caldwell’s History Day exhibit.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

A handful of McMurray eighth-graders took a required class project and ran with it, creating competition-ready exhibits that were chosen as some of the best in the Puget Sound last month.

The students earned top spots at regional History Day, a competition that encourages students to become historians, and will face off against exhibits of middle-schoolers from across the state at the prestigious Washington History Day on Saturday.

Four students took part in the regional competition, and three placed in the top six out of 32 students in the junior exhibit category.

They’ve been working on their projects every week since October, some spending Saturdays and even a birthday constructing their exhibits, which explore the life of a historical figure whose actions made a difference.

They’ve painted, pasted, rehearsed and reworked their exhibits and oral presentations for months, and on April 25 will have a chance to share what they’ve learned with state judges.

“I want to heap praise on these students for their hard work and their dedication to their topics and their research,” said Jan Kammert, the students’ humanities teacher.

She’s led students through the History Day process before, but she’s never taken three students to state, she said. The students who entered History Day did so voluntarily, and each of them is “enthusiastic, interested, interesting and engaged,” she noted.

Principal Greg Allison concurred, and said each is an “outstanding citizen.”

“Academically, I think they really are just above and beyond,” he said. “They are interested in doing top-quality work, and I think this really showcases their ability to do some critical research.”

After having put in countless hours of research, each of the eighth-graders is deeply invested in his or her exhibit topic.

“Learning about ordinary people’s lives really fascinates me,” said Malaika Caldwell, who researched Nellie Bly for her exhibit.

“I guess my person’s famous, but I didn’t know a thing about her before I

started,” she said. She de-scribed Bly as an investigative reporter who inhabited the roles of factory worker and insane and sick individual to learn about the issues surrounding their lives.

Caldwell placed fourth in the regional competition.

Emma Zimmerman delved into the life of Jane Adams, a social worker who “redefined the definition of social work in America,” she said.

“It was her theory that to understand and help the poor you need to live with them,” Zimmerman said of Adams, who built a home for those who needed shelter in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago. “Everything she was doing was so different, and she was so ahead of her time.”

Zimmerman placed third at regionals, and earned an honorable mention for her exhaustive research, having used 53 sources.

Paal Nilssen researched George Washington Carver, who was deeply involved with peanuts but did not invent peanut butter — a common misconception, he said.

“He changed the economy in the South,” Nilssen said. Carver used peanuts to restore nitrogen to soil depleted by cotton cultivation, he said. Then, he invented 324 other things using peanuts, he added.

Elizabeth Yamashita learned about Daniel Inouie to create her exhibit. He was a World War II veteran from Hawaii who became a senator and helped the string of Islands earn its state designation, she said. Yamashita competed at the regional event but did not place.

Since the March 28 regional competition, Caldwell, Zimmerman and Nilssen have been working on their exhibits and the presentations they’ll give the judges in Auburn on Saturday, making visual improvements and honing their responses to possible questions.

The judging process can be nerve-wracking, but several of the students said they’re looking forward to it.

“I was really nervous about it at regionals,” Zimmerman said. “I’m glad I get another chance to do it, because I can say the good stuff again and add all the things I forgot last time.”

Washington History Day state coordinator Lauren Danner said the junior exhibit category, in which the trio of McMurray students are entered, is the most competitive in the entire History Day competition, which is open to sixth- through 12th-graders.

After proving themselves in the regional competition against entrants from Pierce, Thurston and south King County, Caldwell, Zimmerman and Nilssen will compete in a pool of 41 exhibits at the state competition, she said.

If chosen as one of the best in Washington, competitors fly to Washington, D.C., for the national History Day competition. Nilssen said he has his sights set on winning; Caldwell and Zimmerman said they’re just excited about Saturday’s experience.

“I’m looking forward to going there,” said Caldwell. “I didn’t think I would get to go. Anything unexpected that happens there — like winning — would just be an added bonus.”

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