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Student competition takes historical look at rights and responsibilities

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 6:40 p.m. MDT

Gregg Hardy, a member of the Colonial Heritage Foundation, looks at a presentation on the Salem Witch Trials at the annual Utah History Day state competition at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi on Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

LEHI — Two experts gave a performance Wednesday about Dr. Frances Kelsey’s bold stance against thalidomide as an employee of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1960s.

The engaging and eloquent experts were the Anderson sisters, 14-year-old Bethany and 11-year-old Candace. They earned first-place honors in the junior group performance category at the Utah History Day competition and will get to go to Washington, D.C., to compete nationally.

The two sisters from North Logan portrayed various characters to tell the story of Kelsey refusing to approve thalidomide in the United States as she stood against inadequate testing and corporate pressure. The sleeping pill was proven later to have caused birth defects in thousands of European children, many of whom died.

“I definitely feel like it’s a great experience to just make it this far and to come and see other projects and other kids who are just like you and history geeks and love doing stuff like this,” Bethany said.

About 285 students in sixth through 12th grades participated in the state competition at Thanksgiving Point. They presented months of historical research through projects such as exhibits, documentary films, historical performances, websites and research papers.

Candace and Bethany, from the Thomas Edison Charter School North Campus in North Logan, started working on the project in August for their school’s history fair in November. They said it was a lot of work to choose what to do, find characters and portray the emotion.

“We found the topic and we were just hooked,” Candace said. “One thing I really liked was working with Bethany, and I think it just brought us closer together.”

Through the lens of this year's theme, "Rights and Responsibilities in History," students covered a wide range of topics, including Pearl Harbor, Ellis Island, Title IX, the Russian Revolution, gun rights, Gettysburg, Jack Kevorkian, abolitionism, gay rights and the Salem witch trials.

"I'm really happy right now, and I was really excited when they called my name," 13-year-old Carter Fielding said with a grin.

The seventh-grader from the south campus of the Thomas Edison Charter School won first place with his exhibit, "Guantanamo Bay: Human Rights Abandoned." Carter said he's looking forward to competing in Washington, D.C.

"Lots of hours, lots of hard work," he said. "It was definitely worth (the work)."

The program is now under the Utah Division of State History in Salt Lake City, but it has been around for more than 30 years, previously as the Utah History Fair.

“I’m constantly surprised at the kind of subjects and the rigor of their research and their scholarship,” said Brad Westwood, director of the division. “They are moving toward being good citizens and good scholars through this program.”

Westwood said the program empowers youths to use history to understand their lives, tackle current problems, make better decisions and eventually improve public policy.

Tirzah Anderson, mother of Candace and Bethany, has had at least one child participate in the state history competition for five years now. She said her family has a love of history, and the learning experience is always “invaluable.”

“Watching them find something that captures them, being able to put it at its time in history and then take that context and draw parallels to their lives today, it’s awesome to watch as a parent,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, we’re tapping into our own humanity through history.”

First- and second-place winners:

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