DULUTH -- Two Duluth East High School students placed in the top 10 at National History Day, a national competition dedicated to history.

Erin Coleman is an upcoming senior; Natalie Miller is an upcoming junior. This was the first time either had made it to the national level of the competition, which made it even more impressive that out of more than 100 students nationwide, Miller took first place and Coleman took sixth place in the research paper category.

This was Coleman’s second time participating in National History Day. This year, she participated as an alternative to taking her final spring semester exam, which ended up being canceled due to distance learning. Coleman laughs about that now.

“It was rewarding considering how much hard work and time I put into this paper,” she said. “I’m really proud of what I did."

Every seventh-grader at Ordean East Middle School must participate in National History Day as a project for school. Miller said she enjoyed the project so much, she continued doing it on her own each year.

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Natalie Miller, a junior at East High School, participated in National History Day four years in a row. This year she decided to do a research paper on the origins of Title IX, taking second place at state and first place overall in her category at the national competition beating out more than 100 other students. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Natalie Miller, a junior at East High School, participated in National History Day four years in a row. This year she decided to do a research paper on the origins of Title IX, taking second place at state and first place overall in her category at the national competition beating out more than 100 other students. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“I really had no expectation going into nationals,” said Miller, who has participated in National History Day four years in a row. “I still go to bed every night and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I won.’”

Miller also received $1,000 in prize money and a scholarship to use next year at the National History Academy, a five-week intensive summer academy in Washington, D.C. This is the first year she wrote a research paper, having entered exhibits previously.

“I’m a strong writer, so I’ll definitely continue doing research papers,” she said.

The theme of this year’s National History Day was "breaking barriers." Miller’s title was, “Too Strong for a Woman: How Bernice Sandler Created Title IX to Break Barriers for Female Faculty in Higher Education.”

“When most people hear about Title IX, they think about athletics,” Miller said. “So my topic kind of twisted Title IX from what people are usually used to it being, which really helped my paper to stand out at the national contest.”

Erin Coleman of Duluth, a Duluth East High School senior, did a research paper about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic. The research focused on the misconception about how cholera was spread and the government not wanting to set certain measures to protect people because it wouldn't be a popular decision. She did the paper for the National History Day competition and took sixth place in her group, nationally, competing against more than 100 people. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Erin Coleman of Duluth, a Duluth East High School senior, did a research paper about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic. The research focused on the misconception about how cholera was spread and the government not wanting to set certain measures to protect people because it wouldn't be a popular decision. She did the paper for the National History Day competition and took sixth place in her group, nationally, competing against more than 100 people. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Coleman’s title was “Breaking Barriers in Public Health: John Snow and London’s 1854 Cholera Epidemic,” which focused on the doctor who wrote a study suggesting cholera was spread through contaminated water and not through the air, and his work to shift public opinion.

Coleman picked this topic in November before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

“I did end up noticing a lot of similarities,” she said. “One of the reasons I found that a lot of politicians and government officials didn’t support (Snow’s) theory was because if cholera was spread by water, then that would mean they should quarantine ships coming from ports that had epidemics going on, which would be very unprofitable and unpopular.”

After regionals and state competitions are held, two students from each of the five categories in each state move on to nationals, which typically means a trip to Washington, D.C. Because of COVID-19, the contest was moved online, and the awards ceremony was live-streamed on June 21.

“It’s incredibly hard to place at nationals,” said Sue DeNio, who is a contract staff member at the Minnesota Historical Society and helps facilitate National History Day. “It’s exciting to have them both place so high. It will change their life in many ways they don’t even know yet.”

DeNio helps run National History Day in the Northland and worked with Coleman and Miller on their papers. She said placing nationally is an accomplishment that will open doors for the girls when listed on college and scholarship applications.

“Every college in America knows how hard that is," she said, "and then to place in research papers shows these kids know how to do research; they know how to find quality sources; they know how to synthesize information and how to present it.”