While most 14-year-olds were enjoying a few extra hours of sleep and spending the afternoon at the local pool, Alaina Appleman spent the second week of her summer break presenting original research to a panel of judges at the National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

Currently in its 50th year, National History Day is a nonprofit organization that aims to improve teaching and learning of history at the middle and high school levels through student-led historical inquiry and research. Students across the country, as well as in regions ranging from Puerto Rico to South Korea, develop a research topic with relevance to the annual theme; this year, it was “Turning Points in History.” After conducting initial research on their chosen topic, students then decide which of five presentation options – documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website – would best fit the story they are trying to tell. 

When the time came to choose a topic for her History Day project in Stacey Smith’s eighth-grade social studies class at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark last December, Appleman didn’t have to think too hard. The oldest grandchild of Paul Kaparoff, who spent over 30 years in airline management, Appleman has grown up tagging along on trips that have taken her everywhere from France to Australia. Inspired by her and her grandfather’s shared love of travel, Appleman chose to create a website about the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and its impact on commercial aviation for her project submission. 

“For all my other projects I had to do, like for Science Fair, I chose to do boards, and they’re sort of boring,” said Appleman of her decision to present a website rather than the more traditional exhibit board or academic paper. “You don’t get to have fun with it and design it. But when you do a website, you get to choose the font and design all the colors.”

Both the Science Fair and National History Day are staples of the seventh and eighth grade curriculum at St. Francis de Sales, where Appleman was a student. Students are required to do a research project during both years of junior high; those who compete in the Science Fair in seventh grade must compete in National History Day in eighth grade and vice versa. 

“What we encourage is for them to become an expert on their topic,” said Smith, who has been the junior high social studies and religion teacher at St. Francis for 39 years. She estimates that she has been doing National History Day with her students for at least 30 years. “A lot of times students aren’t in a situation where they feel like they are the expert. But I think this project challenges [them] to grow in all of those areas.”

After receiving feedback on her project from judges at the local History Day fair, Appleman was named a state qualifier in the Junior Individual Website category at the regional competition hosted by Ohio History Connection on March 9. On April 20, Appleman took first place in the category at the state level, securing her advancement to the national contest. 

Smith attributes the successes to Appleman’s ability to apply feedback and adapt her project as necessary. 

“She really listened to what the judges and the teachers said and made her project better all the time,” said Smith. 

Appleman is her first student to advance to the National Contest.  “She also chose something she loved. At every level, there’s interviews by the judges. And so if you love what you’re doing, I think that comes across in your interview.”

While Appleman did not place at the national contest, the experience – from research to representing the state on a national stage – has certainly made an impact. 

“I’ve loved watching her confidence grow,” said Laura Appleman, Alaina’s mother. “She’s very mature, and I can’t wait to see what she does with her life, because I think she’s destined for pretty amazing things, and she’s just a hard worker. My husband and I just are in awe of the passions that she has.”

Appleman might be just entering high school, but she can already see herself pursuing history in the future. It’s an interest that has been informed by the passion of those who came before her. 

“It’s amazing how history is instilled from generations,” said Laura Appleman. “[My dad] showed the importance of travel and experiencing the world to my sister and I, and then he’s made sure to do that same thing with his grandkids.”

While the national contest winners were announced just days ago on June 13, National History Day has already announced the theme for next year’s contest, which Appleman is considering entering. For the next few months, though, she’s looking forward to taking a break and enjoying life in the present.

Emma Baum writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.