Bonnie Branch Middle School students David Friedman, Jake Miller and Tim Reagan share a love of baseball. The three friends not only play together, they also created a documentary on Jackie Robinson that will advance to the national level of the National History Day Competition, June 10-14, at the University of Maryland, College Park. The students presented their winning project Friday at Howard County's Middle School Student Achievement Expo. "We all have an interest in sports, and we've all played baseball, and we wanted a topic that we could relate to," Jake said.
With persistent e-mails and phone calls, the three friends obtained interviews with notable primary sources, including Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, and Joe Durham, the first African-American to hit a home run for the Orioles.
After doing the research, Tim, David and Jake spent about four months creating the 10-minute documentary.
Their project was one of many highlighted at the expo, which featured the work of county middle school students in gifted-and-talented classes.
"The student ambassadors are there to learn from their peers and adults and get inspired to make changes in their schools and communities," said Gifted and Talented Program resource teacher Debbie Blum, who organized the expo. Throughout the day, more than 400 students attended workshops and sessions on various topics at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's Kossiakoff Center near Columbia.
During their session, the three Bonnie Branch students taught their peers how to create a documentary using the iMovie program. "You don't want to have your voice in [the interview] because it makes it sound less professional," said Jake, as he demonstrated how to edit a clip of the interview with baseball historian Phil Wood.
Such instructional seminars "are designed to teach students advanced skills in an area of interest," Blum said.
"The middle school expo was started five years ago to give middle school students an opportunity to attend a professional-style conference and learn ... how they may use their voices for change in their schools and communities," Blum said.
Katie Haarer and Cody McNeeley exemplify the kind of original research that Blum encourages. Katie and Cody presented three years' worth of research analyzing the frequency and location of vandalism at their school, Mayfield Woods Middle in Elkridge. Because of their research, security lights were installed this year behind the school.
"It's data-driven, so you can see the difference [after the lights were installed]," said Charla Phillips, a Gifted and Talented Program resource teacher at Mayfield Woods. "Week after week after week, there was no vandalism."
"We actually accomplished something and are doing something good for the school," Cody said. Cody and Katie were part of a team that included Cameo Brown, Jimmy Callaway, Kevin Reggie and Stephanie Tsang.
A research class, piloted three years ago, formed the basis of the team's vandalism research in the sixth grade. For the next two years, team members worked on having security lights installed and then gathered data to measure the effects of those lights during their study hall period.
"I'm really proud because it's so independent," Phillips said. "This is their project driven by their interests and skills."
"The idea is to get students activated," said Tom Payne, the school system's coordinator for advanced programs and fine arts. "We're not talking about show-and-tell projects - it's filling an authentic need, [solving] a real-world problem."
As part of that goal, each participant ended the day by completing a "Declaration of Intent" with an idea and course of action for next year. After the conference, teachers will meet with each student to discuss his or her declaration.
"There will be the opportunity to go into classrooms and talk to students who weren't able to come to this conference and invite them to get involved," Payne said.
Many of the students chose and researched their topics in teams, learning to delegate tasks and manage their time.
"Jake is the one who is a really strong presenter," said Janine Sharbaugh, a Bonnie Branch Gifted and Talented Program resource teacher. "Tim is kind of the fatherly figure, the moderator. ... David is the risk-taker of the group."
Through the Gifted and Talented Program, the three worked together during their social studies class while completing the regular curriculum at home. "We feel very confident about this because we have a lot of support from our teachers and our parents," David said.
Tim said the most rewarding part was that he "found a talent" in creating movies.
"These are the kinds of experiences I want for my own children and, as chair of the Board of Education, that I want for all of Howard County," Diane Mikulis said.
Most importantly, students who attended the sessions began to think about how they could start their own projects.
"I like the part where they did the documentary. That was cool," said Becca Newkirk of Harper's Choice Middle School. "That's something for me to do over the summer when I'm bored crazy."