"The program has definitely evolved," said Wendy Rex-Atzet, Utah History Day state coordinator. "One of the things that kids really like about it is that they have so many options. If they're real techies, they can do a documentary or a website."
One of the documentaries used stop-motion Legos to illustrate the life of pioneering social worker Jane Addams. The Zapata brothers, 13-year-old twins who attend Layton Christian Academy, reported on and portrayed Medal of Honor winner Paul Luther Bolden and Distinguished Service Cross winner Russell N. Snoad.
"My brother and I are actors, so we wanted to do something from, like, a World War II film," said Jose, who directed. Jorge edited, adding explosions and other effects.
"It's about these two guys who stormed an enemy strong point in Belgium, on Dec. 23, 1944, and killed 35 SS troopers just the two of them," Jose explained. "They were two ordinary men who did extraordinary things."
Creativity abounded at the competition. The Jacob sisters Emily, 12, and Lauren, 14 arrived from Orem in 1940s-style attire to talk about Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who infamously appeased Adolf Hitler before WW II.
"The theme this year is Taking a Stand in History, and so we looked at it from the other side," Lauren said.
"We're showing what can happen if you don't take a stand," Emily added.
A second set of 13-year-old twins, Andrew and Nathan Goodworth, arrived from Logan with their guitars to play and sing Bob Dylan protest songs "Blowin' In the Wind," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Hurricane," "Masters of War," "The Times They Are a-Changin'."
"He's a really influential songwriter," Nathan said of the Nobel laureate. "We thought it would be perfect for the theme of Taking a Stand."
The students' passion was plain. The hallways rang with teens and preteens discussing Vladimir Lenin, Cesar Chavez and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Displays remain part of the competition, but they now feature elaborate construction, lights, even video displays. There was Founding Father Thomas Paine next to the Black Panther Party; Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa next to gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
A second Milk display stood beside an ode to "Mister" Fred Rogers. And they were just around the corner from the Mormon militia, John Wayne and Loving v. Virginia.
Among the display topics were "Barbie: Life in Plastic Is It Fantastic?" and "The Villain's Good Side: Genghis Khan."
All told, there were about 40 documentaries, 40 papers, 55 websites and 70 exhibits; the winners announced later Saturday came in 18 categories in each of two age divisions.
The first- and second-place finishers in each category are eligible to compete in nationals in Washington, D.C.. Because so many of the projects are the work of multiple students, "we end up taking about 60 kids," Rex-Atzet said.
"It sounds like a lot, but if you talk to the judges who can only pick two to go to nationals, there are usually more than two that are really great. It's really hard."