Stuyvesant participated in the National History Day (NHD) competition for the second year in a row. In the New York State division, junior Shameek Rakshit placed second in the individual website category with his project “B.R. Ambedkar: Framing an Egalitarian India.” In the group website category, juniors Kristin Lin, Samantha Ngo, and Jenny Gao placed third with their project “Love Canal’s Toxic Relationship: Citizens Fight for Their Health Against an Apathetic Government.” Rakshit, Ngo, Lin, and Gao all qualified for the national level competition and will be travelling to Maryland on June 13.
The NHD competition is an annual history competition available to students throughout the U.S. Participants research a topic related to a theme. This year students were asked to frame their projects around the theme “Taking A Stand in History.” Participants were able to present the topic as either a website, exhibit board, theatrical performance, film, or original documentary.
History teachers Eric Wisotzky and Robert Sandler were in charge of mentoring the teams. “I helped the kids pick the topics. I helped them research those topics and recommended good historians, I helped them get interviews with historians actually in the field. I helped them with the aesthetics of their websites or the aesthetics of their poster boards,” Sandler said.
Every student in Wisotzky’s U.S. History and Sandler’s AP U.S. History classes were required to submit a project, while it was optional for other U.S. History classes. “I like the idea of students working together and improving to solve a problem, and the problem is to create some really cool, visually impressive, but also academically rich, analysis of a historical moment,” Sandler said.
Stuyvesant held a school level competition that determined who would go to the city and state level competitions. “If you [did] well at the city competition at the Museum of the City of New York, you [would] go to the state competition at Cooperstown, and if you [did] well [there], you [would] go to nationals at Maryland,” Sandler said.
Rakshit chose to create a website for his project. It focused on Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian historical figure born in the late 19th century. Due to his socioeconomic state, Dr. Ambedkar was treated as an untouchable, but he went on to lead the first successful movement toward dismantling India caste system, and was also one of the founding fathers of India. “He wrote India’s constitution and through it he embodied all of the principles of justice and equality that he had always advocated for,” Rakshit said. “I wanted to find out what [Dr.] Ambedkar’s policies did for the people they were supposed to empower. I wanted to understand this from the lower caste point of view.”
Like many others throughout the globe, Rakshit is awed by Dr. Ambedkar’s work. “I am still blown aback [by] the impact he had in shaping India [and] his struggle against not only British colonists, but also his fellow Indians. It is a really powerful message in our modern time when more and more people are getting involved in activism around empowering minorities and underprivileged people,” Rakshit said.
Unlike most Stuyvesant NHD participants, Rakshit entered the competition as an independent, or without a teacher. Instead, he heard of the competition from his friend and junior Michael Xu, president of the History Club. “I am thankful that he convinced me to do it,” Rakshit said. “I personally didn’t expect to get this far.”
Ngo, Lin, and Gao’s project focused on Love Canal, a town in upstate New York where residents demanded the U.S. government clean up a toxic waste dump created by the Hooker Chemical Company. This led to the creation of the Superfund Law, which forced the government to allocate a portion of its budget toward cleaning up toxic waste sites. “Before Love Canal there were 30,000 other toxic waste dumps in the country and the federal government wasn’t doing anything about it. After Love Canal and the creation of Superfund, the federal government started taking responsibility for cleaning up these toxic waste dumps and that is why it is a turning point in environmental history,” Ngo said.
The group decided to choose Love Canal as their topic due to its STEM prevalence. “I first learned about Love Canal through another class at Stuy[vesant]: Urban Ecology. [Though] we weren’t able to discuss the topic in depth, this project allowed me to go in-depth and explore all of the connections between Love Canal and environmental history,” Lin said.
Rakshit, Ngo, Lin, and Gao are now looking forward to the National NHD competition in Maryland. “I have enjoyed the entire process. [Going to Nationals] is just a bonus I feel. I am excited to see what I can do at Nationals because the level of competition is pretty different there,” Rakshit said.