Iowa History
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Iowa History

With National History Day, Students Connect With the Real World

Seventy middle and high school students from across Iowa are competing in the National History Day contest online this week, June 12–16, presenting research papers, exhibits, websites, performances and documentaries about a range of historical topics. They’re competing against other state champions from across the country.

It’s a rewarding experience for students who enjoy history, but for some, the medals and scholarships are just the beginning. Through National History Day, a Marshalltown student won a research trip to Hawaii. A Nashua student helped lobby Congress to pass a bill that President Joe Biden signed in February.

“National History Day is such an eye-opener,” said Hanna Howard, who coordinates the statewide program for the State Historical Society of Iowa. “Students can see firsthand how the past connects to the present and to their own personal futures. They see how their research and communication skills can serve them in college, their careers, and beyond.”

In Marshalltown, rising senior Leticia Herrera has been studying the history of Hawaii and World War II since December, when her teacher, Susan Fritzell, told her that her application for the all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii had been accepted.

“I thought it was a prank. I thought she was joking, but it was true,” Herrera recalled. “I felt like I could jump through the roof.”

Susan Fritzell and Leticia Herrera. (Photo: Susanna Meyer/Marshalltown Times-Republican)

During the July trip with the “Sacrifice for Freedom: World War II in the Pacific” Student and Teacher Institute, both Herrera and Fritzell will join 15 other student-teacher pairs from across the country to explore key sites from the war. They’ve been preparing with extensive reading assignments and online meetings.

“I love history, and (the other students) love history, so it’s amazing how you can connect so well,” Herrera said. “You want to go further in what you learn.”

The participants are also researching World War II servicemen and -women from their own communities. Herrera is focusing on Marshalltown native Eugene Matthew Stegmann, who served as a Navy pilot and died in 1945. She pored over local newspapers and interviewed his family members to write a tribute she will present in Hawaii and publish on the website NHDSilentHeroes.org.

Meanwhile, during this year’s national contest, an exhibit Herrera designed with her classmate Yessenia Alvarez Zamora will be part of a virtual showcase organized by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Their exhibit is called “La Huelga: The Struggle That Earned Farm Workers Rights.”

Up in Nashua, rising sophomore Caleb Sinnwell’s 2021 National History Day led to his adventure in Congressional lobbying. He designed a website about the Ghost Army, a secret U.S. military unit that deceived German intelligence during World War II by using false radio transmissions, sound trucks and even inflatable tanks to imply the Allied forces were bigger and more widespread than they actually were.

Caleb Sinnwell with his website about the Ghost Army. (Courtesy of the Sinnwell family)

One of the experts Sinnwell interviewed later asked him to help persuade Congress to honor the Ghost Army with a Congressional Gold Medal. So Sinnwell picked up the phone and called a handful of influential senators, including Chuck Grassley.

“Yeah, I was definitely nervous,” Sinnwell said. “But his first words were that he would co-sponsor the bill.”

Later the senator visited the Nashua-Plainfield High School to honor Sinnwell at a rally.

Nashua-Plainfield teacher Suzan Turner, U.S. Army Major Ashley Holzmann and Caleb Sinnwell at the ceremony in October 2021, when he was awarded the Army Certificate of Achievement. (Photo: Heather Sinnwell)

At this year’s national contest, Sinnwell plans to present a website about the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s 1959 visit to Coon Rapids. Two years ago, Sinnwell focused on the 1960 Iowa Hog Lift, when Iowa hog farmers like his own family sent hogs to Japan after a devastating tsunami.

“We’re pretty resourceful here in rural Iowa,” said Suzy Turner, who coordinates Nashua-Plainfield’s National History Day program. “You can be a student who spends his nights and weekends on a hog farm and win a national title.”

Sinnwell already has a topic in mind for next year’s contest, but like a true competitor — or a seasoned lobbyist — he’s keeping his cards close to his vest. “Yeah, I got an idea,” he said, “but it’s kind of classified.”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov