National History Day 2016 Theme PDF Print E-mail

2016 nhd theme

Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in Chicago/Illinois History

Read about the 2016 National History Day theme below.


2016 minnesota theme video

Watch this great introduction to the 2016 National History Day theme, produced by the Minnesota History Day.



National History Day 2016 Theme: Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in Chicago/Illinois History

Adrienne Harkness, Contest Manager, National History Day and Lynne M. O’Hara, Director of Programs, National History Day, Illinois-Specific Revisions by CMHEC

National History Day welcomes you to explore the theme, Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in Chicago/Illinois History, during the 2015-2016 academic year. This theme is broad enough in scope to encourage investigation of topics ranging from local to world history and across any geographic area or time period. Consider this theme an invitation to look across time, space, and geography to find examples in history of when people took a risk and made a change.

You can begin brainstorming for possible topics by thinking about subjects you are interested in, whether it is science, sports, art, travel, culture, or even specific people. Make note of any areas of interest, creating a list of possible subjects. Talking with your classmates, teachers, and parents about your list can help you narrow down your selection. Throughout this process, keep in mind that your topic must relate to Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History and must be historical, not a current event.

A million ideas flood your mind when you think about exploration, encounter, and exchange, especially because they can mean many different things. So let us first look at them one at a time.


Exploration likely conjures up visions of travelers setting out on a journey to discover new lands. This can be a challenging question when looking for a Chicago/Illinois connection but consider that Illinois was once an unexplored territory though First Peoples had lived on this same ground for thousands of years and had been a colony of France. Consider Joliet and Marquette or LaSalle and DuSable.  If later kinds of exploration interest you, consider explorations and explorers that originally came from Illinois but then ventured into the world and returned with their findings such as Charles Breasted in Egypt.  What were the consequences of the explorations: often the impact are unforeseen.

Exploration also can be examined in the field of science. Researchers are constantly undertaking scientific explorations to find new medications or possible cures for diseases such as cancer. Illinois universities and institutions are full of scientists, doctors, and researchers that explored new ways to understand the world, the human body and mind, other species.  Though recent developments did not count as history, there are plenty of scientific explorations from the past that can be investigated.

The search for new modes of movement has captivated humans since the beginnings of recorded time. This form of exploration has resulted in the invention of a variety of vehicles that could make excellent topic choices. From the invention of the wheel to the development of the space shuttle and the International Space Station, there is a range of explorations, encounters, and exchanges. Where can Illinois inventors be found in changing how we move about?  In addition, new routes, pathways, and roads played a pivotal role in helping certain transportation options grow in usefulness or popularity. How did the I&M Canal increase encounters and exchanges between different areas within the United States? Once the interstate highways were built, how did they affect travel in the United States?

Exploration does not need to be literal—think of exploration as a new idea, concept, or theory that is tested. This idea can come from the fields of politics, economics, or military science. Consider the ways that political campaigns explored the use of radio, and later television and the internet, to introduce candidates to the public. How did the economic theory of mercantilism and later the "free" market drive the exploration of the Americas and exploitation of the resources found there or shape countries' economies?


Exploration, of course, almost always leads to encounters—with different peoples, unfamiliar environments, and new ideas. Encounters are often unexpected and unpredictable, and they reveal much about those involved.  Sometimes, however, encounters that have their root in an issue or cause becomes the starting point for explorations on how to change the situation.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began exploring western North America in 1804, Americans knew little of the vast territory west of the Mississippi River. The explorers’ encounter with that region, however, was shaped in part by individuals like Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who understood the land and its inhabitants, and served as a guide and translator for Lewis and Clark. How did she influence the expedition’s encounters with other Native Americans? With the plants and animals they encountered along the way? How did Lewis and Clark’s notes and drawings of the geography, wildlife, and inhabitants influence the encounters of later Americans? Did you know Lewis and Clark began from and returned to Illinois?  Until that time, Illinois had been "the West" for the United States so many early explorations and encounters can be found in the state.  Even closer to home: as we look at the incorporation of Chicago and the decades of broken treaties, the Black Hawk War takes on new meaning. Who was pushed out--and how--to make that possible?

Many times encounters involve peoples, plants, and animals that have not previously interacted. Here, the scientific and anthropological institutions in Illinois have played a role such as the zoos and the work out of the Field Museum. Consider, too, how exploration for and then later coal mining in Illinois impacted the state's economy, environment, businesses, and working people.

Often exploration leads to occupation or subjugation of other groups of people. Consider the encounters with the original inhabitants of Illinois...and later, between old settlers and new im/migrants from numerous ethnic groups who comprise Chicago and other towns. What factors influenced whether a new encounter is seen as a positive exchange or as a disastrous occurrence? Did everyone settle into the "American Dream?: Were all met with open arms and treated equally? Consider the event from both sides and analyze the perspectives of both the conquerors and the conquered, the old and new, the empowered and the powerless.

Encounters also occur between familiar parties. How did the political, social, and cultural differences between the different ethnic groups, genders, races, labor and business. How do military encounters differ from environmental and cultural encounters in their consequences? How have these encounters remained the same across time, and how have they varied with changing historical circumstances? How have people struggled to change their societies and expand rights impacted us? What are the impacts of these struggles?  Then again, how do fruitful encounters or explorations make the world a better place? Workers' struggles for decent living and working conditions and a voice...businesses aim to become a large force in industry and consumerism....scientists' aims to make discoveries to benefit humankind...the movements for African-American and Latina/o civil rights, women's and gender rights, freedom of speech and democracy comprise some of the significant encounters in Chicago/Illinois.


It is impossible to make a journey of exploration, encounter new ideas, and not have some ideas exchanged between the groups of people.

Encounters can lead to many types of exchanges, whether it be raw materials, manufactured goods, food, or research findings. Coal, corn, catalogs, and cures abound in Chicago and Illinois. But exchanges do not happen only in the physical realm. The sharing of ideas, beliefs, customs and culture can have widespread consequences for the people and communities. Consider the spread of any of the world’s major religions--how did individuals or organizations from Illinois play a significant role? Sometimes the exchange of new or controversial ideas within a society can have a significant effect on how that society thinks and acts. What changes occur within the society because of that exchange? How did ideas and programs from Europe influence the Hull House reformers? How did the exchanges between Hull-House reformers and their communities or between the reformers and the elite or political leaders change Chicago and America.

Politics also can be an area of dramatic exchange as well as encounter and exploration. Chicago role in presidential campaigns and conventions has been significant for over a hundred years. The radical community organizing of Saul Alinsky made a difference in urban areas across the nation. Daley reflected a big city mayor with big city politics that extended the city's borders. Both the Chicago Women's Liberation Union's and the mainstream Illinois Women's Political Caucus's activism changed women's lives in ways that we all take for granted today. Adlai Stevenson's played a crucial role in the unfolding of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Republican Everett Dirksen played a significant role in changing the Congress's attitude about the war in Vietnam. The Chicago Freedom Movements explored ways to change our hearts, minds, and policies in the attempt to create a more just society.

As you can see, all three elements in this year’s theme—exploration, encounter, exchange—are closely related. Try to find examples of each in your chosen topic, though you should note that some topics will lend themselves to focus mainly on one area. You are not required to address all of these elements in your project. Remember that you are not just reporting the past, but you are investigating, searching, digging deeper into the research to thoroughly understand the historical significance of your topic and support your thesis. You will need to ask questions about time and place, cause and effect, and change over time, as well as impact. To truly grasp your topic, think about not just when and how events happened, but why they happened and what effect they had. Your project should be able to answer the all-important question of “So what?” Why was your topic important and why should we study or understand its effects today? Answers to these questions will help guide you as you conduct your research and decide how to present your information.


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