Katie Cheung knew that her grandfather, who lives in Pennsylvania, had been a freedom fighter during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but she had never asked him specific questions about that time in his life.
Now, working on a documentary about the uprising for tomorrow's Howard County History Day competition at Reservoir High School, she has taken the time to learn more.
Working at a computer this week, Katie, an eighth-grader at Bonnie Branch Middle School, replayed portions of her interview with her grandfather, John Kulcsar, as he told of the citizens revolt against Hungary's communist government.
At one point, he appears choked up, remembering how the United States did not respond to a radio request for help. "He wasn't really crying," Katie said, "but it was touching to see how emotional he was."
Katie, 13, is one of about 300 middle and high school students competing in the event. These students passed the hurdle of being the best at their schools. If they do well tomorrow, they advance to the state competition for a chance to reach the nationals.
Bonnie Branch has a strong tradition of success, said Kelly Clark, the social studies teacher working with Katie and other eighth-graders. For the past two years, Bonnie Branch students have progressed to the national level.
"We're hoping for a three-peat," said Janine Sharbaugh, the gifted- and-talented resource teacher also working with the students.
Howard County has held its competition since 2004. The state contest is April 28 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the national event is June 10-14 at the University of Maryland, College Park.
This year, all entries had to be related to the theme of "Triumph and Tragedy." Students could submit projects in four categories: papers, displays, documentaries or performances. In each category, two individual and two group entries could be submitted to the county competition, with a limit of 14 per school.
Two winners in each category and each division (middle school and high school) will go to the state level, said Robert Stout, the school system's curriculum coordinator for secondary social studies.
Schools are not required to participate, though most do. Many schools limited competitors to a single grade, and often to the gifted-and-talented classes. Some teachers make the contest part of the curriculum.
Marriotts Ridge High School teacher Paul Higdon, for example, required all students in his ninth-grade gifted-and-talented U.S. history class to do performances that would serve as contest submissions. "I'm trying to do different ways of learning," he said.
The top five are going to the county competition, but choosing the best was difficult, he said.
"There could have been a couple of dozen, easily," he said. As at other schools, the entries were judged by teachers and other school officials.
For Wendy Zhang, 14, performing the part of 19th-century women's rights activist Lucy Stone was terrifying at first. "I'm not exactly into public speaking," she said.
But the more she delved into her character, the more she came to enjoy the assignment, she said. Beth Warsaw, 14, on the other hand, said that she loves to act and playing the part of Eleanor Roosevelt was fun. She focused on Roosevelt's emotions after learning that her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was having an affair.
Courtney Miller, 14, did her project on singer Marian Anderson and might sing for her performance, she said. The goal of her performance, she said, is to "bring the judges in with you, take them on a story" as she describes Anderson's triumphant musical career.
Students Shuna Gao and Laura Chilcoat were playing the parts of the Wright brothers. "We're just kind of excited to do it," Shuna said. "When you have to be the character, it gives you so much insight," she said.
Andre Morales, 14, would be playing the part of Edgar Allan Poe, showing how he had overcome family deaths and personal tragedies to become a great writer.
At Bonnie Branch, students were recently putting finishing touches on their submissions. Every few minutes, Meghan McNaughton, 13, and Tina August, 14, would ask the others in the room to be quiet, so they could record a portion of the script for their documentary on the Ellicott brothers.
The students had interviewed local historians Janet Kusterer and Joetta Cramm and were adding those interviews to the piece, which will be about seven minutes and include historic photographs of downtown Ellicott City and the mill founded by the brothers.
"We mainly chose this topic because it was really local, and we wanted to do something close to home," Meghan said.
Meanwhile, Jake Miller, 13, David Friedman, 13, and Tim Reagan, 14, were adding an interview from local baseball historian Phil Wood to their documentary on Jackie Robinson.
"A lot of things he told us we didn't know," David said, "and a lot of things we did know, the way he told us make us think about it differently."
Not all students were doing documentaries. Lauren Groft, 13, Lynnsey Graham, 14, and C.J. Wilkens, 14, were creating an exhibit about Three Mile Island. With only a few days left until the competition, they were feverishly creating a papier-mache version of a nuclear cooling tower.