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Students learn how to go beyond Google

by Margaret E. Davis
| June 16, 2024 12:00 AM

Many adults may not know the difference between primary and secondary sources. I had to look it up to be sure.

But a bunch of Bigfork students definitely do. Surrounded by the products of artificial intelligence, online bots and deepfakery, this generation of kids will have to develop finely tuned filters.  

“Sometimes the online video would look like a primary source,” said Ava Sewell, who with classmates Kent Fahnlander and Ella Tidwell created an exhibit on Pearl Harbor for Bigfork High School’s recent history fair, “but then you would watch more and look closer and it … wasn’t.” She tapered off with a wry smile while her colleagues nodded. 

Inspired by National History Day, 80 students produced 50 projects — papers, exhibits, documentaries and websites — in answer to this year’s theme: turning points in U.S. history.  

Teachers Cynthia Wilondek and Annmari Sikon helmed the effort. School librarian Scarlett Sherman helped with research. 

“We require they use the databases the schools pay for,” Sherman said, adding that “those kids who do go to college, they have a little taste of it.”  

They learn how to go beyond Google. 

The fair, with public hours and judging by community members and professionals in the field, showed the strengths schools can bring to bear. 

Seventeen judges volunteered on this late May morning. Sherman, my co-judge, described it in a word as “overwhelming.” We reviewed eight group exhibits as their creators stood by.  

“The kids have been working seven weeks. They’re more nervous than you are,” Wilondek had said at the judges’ briefing. “The students are eager for your feedback — more than ours. You guys are real people.”

We tried to keep in mind many objectives: sources and attribution, thesis and support, context and accuracy, to name a few. Along with these academic matters, we got a big dose of history. 

One sleeper event whose significance appeared in hindsight was the publication of Amelia Simmons’ cookbook in 1796, the first that would define “American cooking.” In a bit of edible multimedia, the exhibit creators made a pucklike cupcake from Simmons’ recipe, then presented it next to a fluffier, frosted modern cousin of the form. 

Earlier, we had learned from another exhibit about a volunteer “poison squad” willing to ingest laced foods for consumer safety. The squad had a waiting list. Their efforts and those of others helped usher in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which put a stop to borax in food, for example.

We also looked at Sept. 11 through the lens of airport security and public health, Three Mile Island, and the “Day of Infamy.” 

Finally, we came to the exhibit on wolf restoration. Clint Rooney, in a sharp shirt and a Ford snapback hat, said with a grin by way of explanation: “The government made wolves extinct and now it’s bringing them back.”

The exhibit stated that wolves’ reduced population led to too many elk and defoliation. 

Exhibit co-creator Vin Stevens mentioned he might go into wildlife management. We marveled at the supercrafty cutting and pasting of paper involved in making the exhibit. He laughed and said, “I got a lot of carpal tunnel from that.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.