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Five northwest Iowa middle school students are celebrating after winning top honors for their documentary on rural electrification at the 2020 National History Day® (NHD) national finals. The NHD awards ceremony was held online in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each year, more than 500,000 middle and high school students around the world participate in the NHD program. Iowa sent 69 students to this year’s national finals where they competed for top honors against nearly 3,000 other students. “We are proud of our student participants who represented Iowa well on the national level and congratulate them on their achievements,” says State Historical Society of Iowa Administrator Susan Kloewer.

Josie Jacobs, Addison Naslund, Ben Philips, Lainey Schuknecht and Hayden Wahlberg, students at Akron-Westfield Middle School in Plymouth County, Iowa, won first place in the junior group division for their 10-minute documentary, “Rural Electrification: Breaking Barriers with the Flip of a Switch.” Valorie Philips, Akron-Westfield Middle School instructor and NHD coach along with parent mentors LeAnne Philips and Arica Schuknecht, provided ongoing guidance to her students during project development.

“What is exceptional about this group’s success is that these students have not been together in the same room since the district contest in mid-March,” Philips says.

The National History Day in Iowa program has been coordinated by the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, since 1994. Students progress through achievement levels during the competition; however, this year’s pandemic restrictions kept the students from showcasing their work in Des Moines and Washington, D.C.

National History Day is a non-profit education organization, which provides a yearlong academic enrichment program that challenges students to research, develop and present papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites and performances about historical topics related to a designated annual theme. This year’s theme was “Breaking Barriers in History.”

Why rural electrification?

The five students from Akron-Westfield Middle School chose to tell the story of rural electric cooperatives because they live in the heart of rural America and many of them have relatives who remember the day electricity came to the farm.

Lainey Schuknecht, a seventh grader involved in the project, says that the easiest part of the project was selecting rural electrification as the subject because, “We all liked it and agreed it fit the theme well. It is also an important part of history that doesn’t get talked about much.”

Student Ben Philips, who lives on Iowa’s electric cooperative lines, shares, “My family’s farm was one of the last ones in Plymouth County to get electricity through the local REC (rural electric cooperative) before World War II started. In our research, we learned that if farms didn’t get connected before the war, they had to wait several more years for electricity until the war was over and electrification work started again.”

Ben’s family farm was originally served by Plymouth Electric Cooperative Association, which merged with two other area RECs in 1998 to form North West REC.

Ben’s great aunts contributed to the retelling of the rural electrification story, adding a personal perspective to the work. In the students’ documentary, Margaret Talbott and Wanda Philips speak of the physical and emotional impacts they felt when their lives –  as young women responsible for carrying out many chores on the farm and in their homes –  were made better through the introduction of electricity. The students’ documentary opens with a quote from Wanda Philips, “A miracle is something that is resoundingly unusual and wonderful, and all of electricity was a miracle to me.”

Seventh-grader Addison Naslund, was impressed that, “Electric co-ops are still working to serve many farms across the country today.”

Shining light on the story

In October, the national organization communicates the chosen theme and students must select a related historical subject matter. Students must prepare a process paper, which frames the scope of the project in 500 words or less and include an annotated bibliography. For “Rural Electrification: Breaking Barriers with the Flip of a Switch,” the group tapped 148 different sources.

North West REC and Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (the primary power provider for North West REC) supplied historical photos and resources, such as the book, The Next Greatest Thing: 50 Years of Rural Electrification In America (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, 1984). The Iowa students were afforded a special opportunity when American Broadcaster Orion Samuelson agreed to a phone interview. Samuelson, inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2003, is best known for his agricultural reporting. He talked with the students, providing extra commentary to support his videos that the students had already obtained while conducting their research. Samuelson is an enthusiastic proponent of rural electrification and the value that it brought to rural America.

Wired to succeed

Students compiled their research and assets and worked as a group during school days in the winter. Then, in mid-March, everything changed. Josie Jacobs, a seventh grader, says, “I thought that sourcing the group’s research was the easiest part of the project but the most challenging was finishing the documentary. We had virtual meetings once a week and did sources at home.”

Hayden Wahlberg, a seventh grader, has prior experience with NHD projects and won first place at nationals with a previous entry.  He says, “This year proved much more difficult because we were not able to meet up and work on the documentary together before nationals.”

The story of these five young students’ success has much in common with the story of rural electrification and the dedicated work of many individuals to bring electricity to America’s farms and rural communities. Success can only be achieved when people work together for a common goal. Addison, Ben, Hayden, Josie and Lainey displayed a high degree of dedication that was also evident more than 80 years ago when hard work and commitment broke through barriers to bring electricity to rural Americans.  


Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative.

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