A unique chapter in American history was on display in our nation’s capital earlier this summer courtesy of three recent graduates of Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School (OLLIS) in Columbia.
Fourteen-year-olds Ava Lawless, Claire Glaude and Rebecca Detweiler preasented their extensive research and fielded questions on the topic of “The Radium Girls: The Triumphant Tragedy of the Girls who Glowed,” before a panel of judges at the National History Day (NHD) competition in mid- June.
Events were held at the University of Maryland in College Park and at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
For their hard work, the girls brought home a fourth-place finish in their category and an Outstanding Junior Entry from Missouri award.
Their project told the true story of a group of women who worked at the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey just after World War I.
Among other things, the women painted glowing numbers on dials with radium. Many of them quickly died of radium poisoning due to their exposure to the deadly chemical, which led to a ground-breaking lawsuit.
Claire discovered the story when she read the book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore.
Ava and Rebecca then read it and the trio knew it would make a great idea for this year’s National History Day theme of “Triumph and Tragedy.”
“The (story of the) radium girls played a major part in the creation of many modern labor laws in the United States for factory workers,” said Ava.
“Because of their case, the right for an individual to sue a corporation due to labor abuse was created,” she said. “As well, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created shortly after the story of the radium girls case came to light.”
The OLLIS girls’ journey to the East Coast was the culmination of a more than six-month process of research, documentation and presentation.
Their historical wheels began spinning in mid-November of last year with the introduction of the NHD theme in Paula Sun’s eighth-grade social studies class.
“The students started off with some preliminary research in order to convince me that they had a topic that was worthy and fits the theme and was not too broad or narrow,” stated Mrs. Sun. “In January students began to work with their groups, comparing thesis statements and papers and deciding what would be used for the project.”
The OLLIS competition was in February. After winning the school fair, the girls competed in a regional mid-Missouri fair in March, winning there as well.
That allowed them to compete in the Missouri state contest, which was held at the University of Missouri at the end of April.
According to Mrs. Sun, after winning the regional competition, the girls completely reworked their display board outside of school hours, heedoutside of school hours, heeding the advice of judges who offered suggestions and ideas for improvement.
At Mizzou, the trio took second place, which qualified them for the national competition in June.
“I was impressed by the commitment of the young ladies to submit the best project (at each step),” said John Detweiler, father of Rebecca. “While many of their classmates relaxed after graduation, they spent multiple days meeting to build their display for the national competition.”
According to Ava, the post-graduation assignment was well worth the effort.
“Working as a team was fun,” she told The Catholic Missourian. “We learned to blend our many different ideas together and create one cohesive project.”
The girls, along with their parents, said they enjoyed every moment of their time in the Washington D.C. area and the opportunity to represent the Show-Me State.
By June, their display board had tripled in size to a 6-by-5-foot-wide “billboard,” and rightfully so.
“It took a lot of thought and many hours to make a project worthy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on the Mall,” said Mrs. Sun.
These young historians had a chance to see many of the memorials and museums in Washington and meet hundreds of other students from around the nation and world as they exchanged state buttons along the way.
“The girls had a great experience,” said Rachel Lawless, mother of Ava. “All three of them are very driven and intelligent, and it was nice for them to finally have the pressure (of work) behind them.
“They could finally relax and enjoy the fruit of their hard work over the last school year,” she said.