Fair ignites interest in history

Over 11 years, the event has grown and now has to turn away applicants. Local winners will go on to state competition.

By RITA FARLOW, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008

LARGO - In 1998, the first year of the Pinellas County History Fair, there were only 12 entries and three judges.

"This year, we had to turn students away," said fair coordinator Alan Kay, a history teacher at East Lake High School.

Students from 10 local schools submitted 75 entries in this year's fair - the largest yet - held Friday at the Largo Public Library. And more than 60 people volunteered as judges, including active and retired educators, college professors, city and county staff and members of a variety of civic organizations.

Students had to place first or second at their school fair before being selected for the county competition. The top two students in each category will qualify for the state fair in Tallahassee in May. Each state then sends its top two projects in each category to compete in the national fair at the University of Maryland in June.

Last year, the county had its best showing yet, sending five projects to the national fair, where a team from Gibbs High School won the National African American History prize.

Projects can be done individually or with a group in four categories: 3-D exhibit, documentary, research paper and performance.

Students this year tackled complex topics such as the "n-word," the Holocaust, McCarthyism and Watergate. They delved into subjects such as draft riots, women's rights and persecution of American Indians.

Hannah Stein, 14, got interested in child labor laws after she witnessed a young girl working in a nail salon. Through her research, she found that 246-million children work, the vast majority in Asia.

"I wanted to show people how devastating this is and how many kids have died because of this," said Hannah, an eighth-grader at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg.

Hannah said the project taught her a valuable lesson about global economics. "Children are a compliant and cheap workforce and big businesses love that," she said.

The strongest projects are those students are passionate about, said volunteer judge Spencer Briggs, a member of the Pinellas County Historical Society.

"They become an expert on the subject and an instant historian," he said. "They're educating the judges on the topic."

A group of teens from Osceola Middle School said they chose to write a play about influential black American women because they wanted a topic they could relate to. They also got a chance to educate classmates who didn't realize the Underground Railroad was named for the secret way black slaves were transported to freedom, not because safe houses were located underground.

It was exciting to shape their research into an original work of art, they said. "We wrote the play ourselves at lunch one day," said Nikori Bailey, 14.

Guthrie Cohen, a sixth-grader at Southside Fundamental in St. Petersburg, said his teacher helped him narrow the focus of his project on John Adams' role in the Boston Massacre of 1770. He spent about a month going through books, diaries, journals and Web sites devoted to the incident.

Guthrie, 11, said he didn't know anything about the massacre before he started his research, but was drawn in the more he read about it.

"When you get into this subject," he said, "it's really mind-boggling."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

By the numbers

Serious figures

75 entries were submitted this year.

10 schools had students with submissions.

60+ volunteers were judges.

246M Number of children that one student found work (mostly in Asia) in her project on child labor laws.