Eden Prairie siblings Sasha and Nico Allen are making their mark by digging into the past.
The budding historians earned two of the top three honors among Minnesota students participating last month in the 2021 National History Day Contest.
Sasha, 15, and Nico, 13, the children of Scott and Juliana Allen, were among 60 Minnesota students who competed in the annual competition. Held virtually this year because of the pandemic, it usually takes place in Washington, D.C.
According to its website, the contest encourages middle school and high school students to do original research on historical topics. Students presented exhibits, papers, documentaries, performances, and websites based on this year’s theme, “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.”
“When one person wins, and the other sibling doesn’t, it’s always a bit of a mixed emotion,” said Juliana, the siblings’ mother. “The fact they both won was a pretty great time. And they supported each other throughout the process.”
Sasha, a sophomore at Eden Prairie High School this fall, won first place for senior individual documentary, earning a gold medal and a cash prize of $1,000.
Her winning entry is a 10-minute documentary titled “Don’t Believe Your Eyes: How Falsified Visual Media Built the Cult of Stalin.” It focuses on how the Russian leader tried to convince the world “that he was a good person and an effective leader, and not evil,” she said.
Sasha plans to use her winnings to purchase “better” software to make more documentaries. As part of her prize, she won a full scholarship to next summer’s five-week research program at the National History Academy in Washington, D.C.
Nico, an eighth-grader at Central Middle School this fall, won second place for junior individual website, earning him a cash prize of $500.
His winning website is titled “‘The Greatest Adventure in Advertising’: How the Committee on Public Information Sold War to the American People and the World.” The propaganda committee during World War I urged the public that U.S. involvement in the war was a good idea and they should support it, he said.
It was Sasha’s third year in a row qualifying for nationals, progressing from an honorable mention the first year, a fourth-place the second, to first place this year.
Nico qualified his first year participating in the contest.
History Day is a required part of the curriculum for advanced social studies classes at Central Middle School. Students completed a history-themed project for class, though it’s optional to participate in the contest.
Projects are presented at the local and state levels; the top ones are invited to participate nationally.
“I’ve been interested in history for a long time,” Sasha said. “It started out as a school project in sixth grade. I’ve been doing it every year since then. It wasn’t a school project for me this year, but I enjoyed it so much that I just wanted to do it on my own.”
“My expectations were low since it was my first year,” said Nico, whose project mentor was Central teacher Karen Nelson. “I wasn’t expecting to go to nationals. So, getting a second place was really amazing.”
The power of images
Through their research, Sasha and Nico delved into how the power of images can sway the masses.
“Obviously, falsified media is common today,” Sasha said. “It shows up as fake media. It’s all on social media and the internet. Even mainstream news. The (Stalin) campaign served as a warning to guard against this information and fake images that try to present themselves as truth. It’s very relevant to study.”
While searching online for a topic, Nico knew he wanted to focus on propaganda.
“I have some World War I propaganda posters, and I thought they were interesting,” he said. “I found an article about them online and discovered the organization that created them was the Committee on Public Information (CPI).”
He said he learned much about the committee in his research.
“A lot of world leaders like Roosevelt and even Hitler used (the committee’s) methods to further their campaigns and their goals,” Nico said.
Juliana said she saw much growth in Sasha and Nico’s researching skills as they dug deeper into their topics.
“It was fun to see them get so excited to find small things to add to (their) documentary or website,” she said. “You don’t usually think of getting excited about finding a photo of some obscure Russian person as being something a kid or a teenager would be thrilled about.”
Not surprisingly, history is a favorite school subject for this brother-sister duo.
“We all love to travel, and history is a part of everything we do,” Juliana said.
As for college, Sasha thinks history would be a good major. (Nico isn’t sure yet what he wants to study in college, though he thinks history would be fascinating.
“Computer science also interests me,” she said. “I’m taking (computer science) courses in high school. I like making apps. I also get to do a bit of that with my documentary.”
- One other Eden Prairie student won an award at the National History Day Contest. Cecelia Erickson, a student at Central Middle School, received an honorable mention in the category: junior individual documentary. Her winning entry is titled “38 Questions: How One Survey Ignited a Voice, Sparked a Movement, and Changed our World.”