Making the most of History Day at the National Museum of American History

Manager of Youth and Teacher Programs Naomi Coquillon shares the inside scoop on National History Day at the museum.

On one wonderful day each June, the museum opens 50 new exhibits from a special group of guest curators: budding historians who are the state level winners of the National History Day competition. National History Day (NHD) is a nationwide event in which students in grades 6-12 develop an original research project around a theme in history—from rights and responsibilities to the individual in history and more. In performances, papers, websites, and exhibitions they share the knowledge they have acquired by "doing history," selecting and evaluating sources, considering multiple perspectives, and communicating the understandings and arguments about the past that they have developed through this work.

Students, parents and teachers from across the country line up to enter the museum during National History Day 2011
Students, parents and teachers from across the country line up to enter the museum during National History Day 2011

National History Day is one of the country's most important opportunities for students to learn history in an authentic and meaningful way. Past museum interns who were also former NHD participants have reflected on the important role the project played in their lives and the connections between the students' work and that of the museum's curators. Beyond these observations on the power of History Day projects, a study published in 2011 showed that: 

  • NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies, but in reading, science and math as well.
  • NHD students are better writers, who write with a purpose and real voice, and marshal solid evidence to support their point of view.
  • NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information.
  • NHD students learn 21st century skills. They learn how to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time, and persevere.

In addition to serving as a showcase for students' great work, the museum is also a great place to do that research for original projects. You can find high quality images of our artifacts on our website. Our Archives Center has extensive collections on advertising history, photographs, and more, and is available to students and parents by appointment. The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology has rare books and manuscripts by Galileo, Albert Einstein, and more and is also accessible to students with parents by appointment. For those who can't come to the museum, digitized artifacts and manuscripts can be found on the Smithsonian Libraries' Galaxy of Images and the Smithsonian's collections search (be sure to select the box to return results with images only).

Aurora Quezada of City Neighbors High School in Baltimore represented Maryland at the museum in 2012. She is pictured with her teacher Kristine Sieloff and school administrators, who came to see her exhibit on display. Image courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council.
Aurora Quezada of City Neighbors High School in Baltimore represented Maryland at the museum in 2012. She is pictured with her teacher Kristine Sieloff and school administrators, who came to see her exhibit on display. Image courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council.

You can also receive guidance from museum staff about how we do our work—the very work that is modeled in History Day projects. 

  • In this podcast we discuss how to prepare for presenting historical characters in our History Alive theater performances.
  • In this Google hangout, our director for experience design discusses what makes a good theater performance. 
  • In this podcast, museum staff who have judged History Day papers, websites, and other projects talk about what makes a compelling History Day submission.
  • Our Founding Fragments video series introduces students to curators discussing intriguing artifacts in our collection, how and why we collect and analyze them, and what they tell us about American history.
A student speaks with a museum staff member at National History Night 2013. Image courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council.
A student speaks with a museum staff member at National History Night 2013. Image courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council.

For about the past five years, I have served as a judge for Maryland History Day, and it's one of my favorite days of the year. I'm inspired and renewed by the enthusiasm these students demonstrate for understanding the past and for sharing their knowledge with peers and judges like me. Congratulations to all the students who participated in this year's National History Day events! We're looking forward to seeing some of you at the museum during National History Day this year.

Naomi Coquillon is the museum's manager of youth and teacher programs.

Posted at 1:44 pm EDT in Public Programs,Teaching & Learning

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