Romig Middle Schoolers present history project at the Smithsonian

Romig Middle School students Annika Colberg (left) and Ava Liles (right) look through photos of the Berlin Wall. The photos and the exhibit in the background were shown at the Smithsonian on Wednesday as part of National History Day. (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

Thirteen-year-old Annika Colberg and 14-year-old Ava Liles never expected their National History Day project to win the statewide contest in their division. But, when they found out they were headed to the Smithsonian, they were proud, surprised and a little bit nervous.

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“We put in so much effort, and we knew that it was like a job well done because we spent so much time on it,” Liles said.

Colberg and Liles along with their Romig Middle School classmates Liza Lebo and Emma Knapp spent hours working after school on their exhibit “The Berlin Wall: A Symbol of Isolation and Unification.” Made up of two grey tri-fold boards stacked on top of one another, the exhibit stands taller than they do.

“The top is more of the information that we needed to have for our project, so more facts. And then the bottom we have split west and east with quotes and photos from kind of each side of the wall,” Colberg said.

A timeline decorated with string lights runs horizontally. In one of the photos, a guard reaches through a gap in the Berlin Wall, offering a flower to the camera. John F. Kennedy’s quote, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war,” is centered on the board in big, bold letters. Another from Ronald Reagan: “We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed. We’re armed because we mistrust each other.”

Their exhibit features photos, quotes and historical information about the Berlin Wall. (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

“I think those are also things (that) can be applied currently. Kind of realizing our faults,” Colberg said. “Like learning from our mistakes and what works and what doesn’t.”

Forty-one students from across Alaska headed to Maryland this week to compete in the National History Day contest. They’re joining students from across the country and the world. As part of the contest, the girls were also invited to showcase their exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on Wednesday. 

The girls’ exhibit features a piece of the actual wall that once divided Germany. It also includes a small replica made of Styrofoam.

“One half of the wall has graffiti on it, ’cause it shows how people from the west side were able to come to the wall and write on it,” Liles said. “And how on the east side it was just one blank wall because everything was restricted.”

For National History Day, students conduct original research on a topic of their choice. They then work to create an exhibit, performance, documentary, essay or website explaining their research and compete on a local, district and statewide level in different divisions before advancing to nationals. The competition was started in 1974.

Adam Johnson, the group’s social studies teacher, said the contest helps his students develop the research skills they need for high school.

“They have to do their own research. They have to find primary and secondary sources, and they have to use that research to create a project,” Johnson said. “It’s really higher-level thinking.”

Annika Colberg, left, and Ava Liles, right, stand next to their National History Day exhibit “The Berlin Wall: A Symbol of Isolation and Unification” (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

Johnson said what made this group stand out was their diligence.

“Their research was spot-on. They were passionate about the project. And they worked well together as a group,” Johnson said. “On top of that, they made a display that looked like a museum exhibit.”

Colberg said they chose the Berlin Wall partly because it fit with this year’s theme of “Conflict and Compromise in History” and partly because they didn’t know much about the Cold War, a conflict that had impacted their parents’ generation.

“It was important and it was a pretty major event, and it’s still relatively recent where there’s people that have actually been impacted by it like still living today,” Colberg said.

All four girls said that studying history is an important way to understand the present and the future.

“With the Berlin Wall, obviously that didn’t turn out well. So by having that event and time in our history, I think we can definitely learn from that,” Liza Lebo said over the phone. “Which is, I think, a really great example because of recent events.”

Neither Colberg nor Liles are sure yet what they’ll go on to study, but they haven’t ruled out history.

Erin McKinstry is Alaska Public Media's 2018 summer intern. She has an M.A. from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and a B.A. from Knox College. She's reported stories for The Trace, The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Harvest Public Media, the IRE Radio Podcast, KBIA and The Columbia Missourian.

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