BHS Students Win National History Prize by “Solving the Enigma”

Three members of
Three members of BHS’s winning National History Prize team: Ronia Hurwitz, Nick Chapman and Maya Biswas (l-r)       Image (c) KSMcP, 2013 all rights reserved

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

It took nine months of don’t-even-ask-how-many-hours-a-week for five Bedford High School juniors to construct their award-winning website—but in the end, all the intensive work brought home the first prize in a national competition.

On the third day of school last September, Maya Biswas, Nicholas Chapman, Ronia Hurwitz, Lindsey Currier and Lexi Ugelow became a team and began to deliberate how to demonstrate this year’s National History Day theme “Turning Points in History.” The students—and their other BHS classmates—had five project formats to choose from:  exhibit, documentary, paper, performance or website.

“We chose a website because it was the most efficient,” said Maya Biswas. “We could all work on it separately. We had five people in our group and five is the maximum you can have.”

Ronia Hurwitz added, “We’re not theatrical, so no performance. Nick [Chapman] is really good with technology. When it came down to doing either a documentary or a website, Nick said he could do cooler stuff with the website—so that’s what we did.”

At first, the team delved into research to narrow down their subject, hitting plenty of dead ends before finally deciding on the enigma code as their focus. The team members worked individually to create webpages and then honed their own and each other’s work, improving the site through each step of the process—through the district competition, then the state, and finally the national level.

“It started out as straight research,” said Hurwitz. “We pretty much researched what we were interested in at first and it was different for each person and there wasn’t much overlapping. Once we came to really create ‘the argument,’ one teammate focused on the battles and World War II, and then each of us would shape it and attack a page and move it around.”

“The work was very scaffolded at school,” Biswas added. “There were dates when certain things needed to be done. . . . That definitely helped us. [The way we started in our group was that] one person would be an idea person and put everything down—not [necessarily] in an aesthetically pleasing way—and someone else would fix it, make it coherent, make it look better.”

“And then someone else would fix it again,” said Hurwitz.

“Sometimes we had to restrict ourselves from working on the project so we were able to do well in the rest of our classes,” said Biswas, with Hurwitz and Chapman in agreement.

With sports activities, work, and other academic assignments, the team was able to get together in one place only occasionally when they needed to make major decisions. Generally, each member worked individually and the team interacted by phone or text, through reviewing each other’s work and—once or twice—via platforms like Google Docs.

“I just remember the weekends. It was like, we have a meeting on Saturday? Well, I have an eight page paper due on Monday that I haven’t started yet but I guess we can meet,” said Chapman, as his teammates laughed.

Besides acquiring research skills and lessons in time management, another big challenge was figuring out creative ways of limiting the number of words to 1,200 for the entire project, as required.

“We fit nine months of research into 1,200 words,” Hurwitz said. “1,200 words is nothing. You cut the corners with quotes and you cut the corners with videos and pictures—but at the end of the day, it’s 1,200 words. Learning to be concise—saying, for example, “World War II” instead of “The Second World War”—you cut the ‘the’s’ and the ‘that’s’ and the little tiny words. That’s also important [when] writing a 500 word college essay.”

“You don’t think you’re being flowery or saying too much and then you see you have 4,000 words,” continued Chapman. “So you go through and start hacking it all down.”

“It’s how you learn to use good, descriptive words without using five weaker words,” agreed Biswas.

“That’s the thing,” said Chapman. “You’ve got a paragraph, it’s only 200 words and you have to ask, “Is this really a sixth of our argument?’ No, it’s maybe a hundredth— so you give it 12 words.”

“In order to keep something, you really have to make the argument [to the other team members] to keep it,” said Hurwitz. “After ‘districts’, we decided to cut between one third and two thirds of our argument. Arguing about what to keep and what to get rid of made [the product] better.”

When asked if they had fun doing the project, the students said that they enjoyed going to the Washington area for the national competition and that they definitely got a lot out of working on such a long-term, all-consuming group effort.

“We started this project on the third day of school and ended on the second-to-last day of school,” said Chapman. “Of the entire year, we didn’t work on it for three whole days.”

“It’s the biggest thing all of high school, safe to say,” concluded Hurwitz.

To see the first place award winning website, visit:

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June 29, 2013 9:44 am

What a fine result, linking technology, history, and human affairs. I am totally impressed.

June 28, 2013 9:35 pm

Wow! The best website in the nation came from our little town! You have represented us so well! Kudos to each of you, champions!
And kudos to our top-notch history department as well!

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