History in Cooperstown

By Samantha Carr

Baseball history comes alive every day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but during New York State History Day, the topics grow to cover a wider range of the past.

Cooperstown has been the location of New York State History Day for more than 10 years now, and continued that tradition Friday, hosting a competition for a yearlong educational program where students from all over New York State learn an exciting way to study history and present their ideas.

“Each year the competition has a theme and this year’s is Debate and Diplomacy in History,” said John Odell, the curator of history and research for the Hall of Fame and a judge for the competition. “Then each student can choose their topic in that theme. This year’s run from Ancient Greece all the way to the Patriot Act.”

Students express what they have learned through a paper, creative and original performance, documentary, website or exhibit in either a junior division (6-8th grade) or senior division (9-12th grade). They have won at local and regional competitions before competing at the state level.

“Over 400 kids will participate today and the top students will have a chance to go on to nationals,” said Jim Gates, Librarian for the Hall of Fame and also a judge. “There are college scholarships awarded there, so for those that move on, the rewards can be quite substantial.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame is only one location for students to explore during History Day as judging is also taking place at the The Farmers’ Museum, Fenimore Art Museum and Otesaga Resort Hotel. Cooperstown Village Historian Hugh MacDougall, who spent 30 years as a diplomat in Africa and Asia with the U.S. State Department before retiring, teamed with Odell and Gates to judge papers on Friday. They received the works two weeks in advance to preview and read them before the student is interviewed.

“The interview is meant to clarify questions the judges have on the paper, rather than affect the rating or scoring,” said MacDougall. “It gives us a chance to speak with the student and find out why they chose their topic and made the choices they did.”

Students have strict rules for their research and must meet proper style, citation and source requirements.

“One of the goals of this program is to maintain the excitement about history these kids have and educationally, to learn the research process, which can be a real challenge,” said Gates. “It allows them to develop critical thinking and analysis skills.”

Not only do students get a chance to tour world-class Museums and present their work, they are encouraged to meet students from other schools, exchange ideas and gain new insight. Through this experience, students learn all of the hard work that goes into understanding a topic of history and gain context as to why it was important.

“The students are encouraged to take a topic and apply it broadly to the real world,” said Odell. “They have to make interpretations of the topic and draw conclusions about how it applies to American culture, which is very much what we do at the Hall of Fame with baseball history.”

Samantha Carr is the manager of web and digital media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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