Project-Based Learning (PBL)

National History Day as a Framework for PBL

These strategies for using the annual competition for project-based learning can help engage students in US history and promote design thinking.

June 26, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

Does a project exist that lets high school students ask meaningful questions, improve their research skills, and become more self-reliant in preparation for college? National History Day (NHD), an annual competition growing in popularity nationwide, includes all of those skills essential for success in higher education. In this competition, students create a project that aligns with the yearly theme. Students, in groups or individually, not only choose their historical topic to research, but also choose how they want to present their project, with options such as documentary, website, exhibit, paper (individual only), or performance. 

The National History Day competition includes several levels: school, regional, state, and nationals. Teachers typically begin the NHD project with students when school starts, and the national competition occurs in June. There are rubrics for each project type that provide clear expectations for students to follow, with a focus on making a quality historical argument. 

Furthermore, students participating in NHD exhibit characteristics of an innovator. They’re creating, making choices, researching, revisiting, and refining their project. They’re being engineers following the design thinking process

Step 1: Empathize

The first step in the design thinking process is empathy. Students try to understand another person’s feelings and perspective, as well as delving into history to discover what excites them. Every student has a passion, and with empathy, students get to match what they care about with the annual NHD theme.

Some students might be interested in music, others could be passionate about women’s rights, and certainly a few students are really fascinated about a particular historical era or development. In this first step, students choose what they care about in their NHD project as long as they justify how it matches the annual theme. For example, one group chose David Bowie’s music as a turning point in the gay liberation movement.

Step 2: Define

Next, students define or put parameters on how they will research their topic. Students specifically explore various databases such as JSTOR, local libraries, museums, and whatever else they have available to assist them in acquiring sources for their project. Students studying East Tennessee’s role in the passage of the 19th Amendment were inspired by downtown Knoxville’s suffragist statues. In the define stage, students begin to understand research practices, analyze quality of sources, and consider unexpected ideas from sources. 

Beyond research parameters, students, with a topic in mind, pick the project type that fits best with their topic. For example, one group researched how the war on drugs represented a turning point in rap music. For that project, students chose to do a documentary, since they wanted to include music clips. Another student chose to write a paper about German nationalism before and after the Treaty of Versailles. 

Step 3: Ideate

Ideation involves asking research questions about the topic, especially “why” and “how” questions—for example, when studying the history of rap, “Why did the war on drugs begin?” or “What was rap music like before Nixon’s presidency?” These questions guide where and what students look for in sources. Students, like professional historians, guide their research with questions. 

Additionally, during ideation, there’s always a willingness to revamp the project, such as choosing a new topic or a different method for presenting their project. After testing (step five), students can return here to revise using the feedback from competitions. Innovators recognize the necessity of improvement. 

Step 4: Prototype

In this step, students begin creating their project. They are researching, finding or creating visuals, writing their thesis, explaining historical context, and, most important, using historical evidence to make an argument that their topic not only fits within the NHD theme but also is historically significant. For last year’s theme of “turning points,” students argued how their topic/event/person changed the landscape within their sphere of influence, such as Kitty Genovese and the creation of 911

Part of their project is the creation of an annotated bibliography and a process paper. The annotated bibliography should conform to Chicago Manual of Style citations, and students should try to acquire at minimum 15 primary and 15 secondary sources; having many quality sources improves the historical argument. With the process paper, students detail how they created their project, what sources were important to them, and their overall journey with the project.  

Step 5: Test

After projects are complete, students, individually or in groups, present at the school-level competition. In my U.S. History class, all students participate in the project and receive a grade for participation in the school-level competition.

Judges from the community, using the NHD rubric, grade student presentations and rank first-, second-, and third-place recipients for each category. These students advance to regionals, which is optional, but they do receive extra credit for participating in competitions beyond the school level. 

Step 6: Present

Using feedback from judges, students refine their project for the regional competition. If students continue to advance to state, and then nationals, the process of refinement continues. 

Going through the design thinking process with the National History Day competition promotes empathy, student choice, patience during research, questioning, and creativity, and it helps prepare students for the independence and grit required for success in college.  

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Critical Thinking
  • Design Thinking
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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