UTEP Hosts History Day for Hundreds of Local Students

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

On Saturday, Feb. 16, UTEP went back in time for a creative and educational look at the past when students from all over the city hit campus for El Paso History Day.

About 425 students offered 239 different group and individual entries including research papers, exhibits, documentary films, websites and live performances that told tales about events, people and places both well-known and virtually unknown.Visitors to UTEP learned about world events and innovations on El Paso History Day, Feb. 16 at the Liberal Arts Building and Union Building East. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServiceVisitors to UTEP learned about world events and innovations on El Paso History Day, Feb. 16 at the Liberal Arts Building and Union Building East. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

It was all part of National History Day, a yearlong educational program fostering academic achievement and intellectual growth through project-based learning along with participation in district, state and national competitions. This year’s theme is “Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events.”

“It’s the equivalent of a science fair for history students,” said Charles Martin, Ph.D., professor of history and local director of History Day. Martin – who has donated his time and energy to History Day since it began in El Paso almost two decades ago – was as thrilled as the students at the enthusiastic turnout for 2013.

“It’s a record-breaking year in terms of entries,” he said. “It was larger but also came off more smoothly compared to previous years. You see how excited students get about history – not just history itself, but the research and communication skills that they learn so they can use them in college or any kind of professional activity. So while history is the mechanism, the skills that they learn are applicable to any kind of professional career.”

For Martin, leading the History Day charge in El Paso in addition to his teaching duties within the history department is all about igniting a passion in these youngsters that can last a lifetime.

Exhibits were set up through the university’s Liberal Arts Building and Union Building East. The afternoon culminated in an awards ceremony inside the Tomas Rivera Conference Room where judges lauded the diligent research that students grades 7 to 12 put into their entries. More than 90 educators, historians, community leaders and other volunteers lent their time and expertise as judges for the competition, with evaluation of websites and research papers taking place almost two weeks before the big event.

Students were encouraged to choose any topic in local, national or world history and investigate its historical significance and relationship to the theme by conducting extensive primary and secondary research.

Claire Petty of Brown Middle School took first place in the junior individual performance category. Her “ten-minute musical” – half of which was sung – demonstrated the transition from vaudeville to “the talkies” as popular entertainment evolved from stage performances to motion pictures. Petty began working on her piece during the Christmas holidays and worked on it steadily up until the big day. She’ll keep tweaking it so as to bring the best presentation she can to the state competition in Austin. She’s grateful for the chance to cultivate passion for a subject she was unfamiliar with through a process she loved; namely, performing.

“It’s given me more respect for my topic in that I can really appreciate black-and-white movies and how hard it was to get there,” she said.

Sophomore Jesus Ayala was part of a five-person group from El Paso High School that won gold in the senior performance category for their depiction of Robert E. Lee’s history after his Civil War capitulation.

“We’re trying to share five years from that surrender in 1865 because it was such a turning point in history that nobody hears about from Lee’s perspective,” Ayala said. “He worked to keep the Union even if he fought for the Confederacy before. He tried to prevent more bloodshed. That’s what we’re trying to get across.” Ayala, who portrayed General Ulysses S. Grant, and his team had been working on their 10-minute play for months. “We probably started the third week of school. It’s work that doesn’t end. You never stop learning.”

College of Liberal Arts Dean Pat Witherspoon, Ph.D., presented most of the awards to winning students as more than 200 of their peers, parents and teachers watched. Those who placed first or second in any category go on to compete at the state level later this spring. The top two finishers in each category at the state contest become eligible to advance to the national contest held in June at the University of Maryland at College Park. Adam Esqueda of Brown Middle School and Elijah Harwell of El Paso High School were gold medal winners at Texas History Day in Austin in 2012. Special recognition also was given to entries that caught a judge’s eye but didn’t medal, allowing projects in African-American studies, humanities, Mexican-American history, women’s history, military history, local history and more to be recognized.

The event marked the 16th year of El Paso History Day, sponsored by the UTEP Department of History and College of Liberal Arts. A full listing of this year’s winners can be found at www.academics.utep.edu/historyday. Connect with this fun, informative annual event on Facebook and track the ongoing progress of winning local students at https://www.facebook.com/pages/El-Paso-History-Day/220365458049584.