Closer Readings Commentary

Exploring the Galapagos With Charles Darwin for National History Day 2016

Using Open Education Resources for National History Day

I am a returning adult-student of 37, an intern with the National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment project, and a tutor of English and History. This blog is designed to help you get started with a National History Day project by introducing some high-quality open educational resources funded by NEH.

First off, I’d like to introduce you to one of these resources: Chronicling America, a free online database of America’s historic newspapers from 1836–1922, totaling over 9,700,000 digitized pages.

Chronicling America, the product of a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a fantastic database that satisfies the NHD requirement for primary source research. It also helps give you a sense of the historical context within which events took place.


This year’s NHD theme is “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange,” so let’s consider Exploration for a sample research project. As Lynne O’Hara and Adrienne Harkness of the NHD national office point out, “exploration is a theme that likely conjures up visions of travelers setting out on a journey to discover new lands. "However exploration can also be examined through the lens of science. Researchers are constantly undertaking scientific explorations to find new medications or possible cures for diseases such as cancer."

With this in mind, I surveyed the suggested NHD topics section. “Exploring the Galapagos: Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution” jumped out at me. Why?

  • The topic fuses the two meanings of “exploration” previously mentioned: Darwin’s geographical exploration of the Galapagos Islands and the scientific exploration that culminated in his famous theory of evolution.
  • Moreover, Darwin’s theory is the game changer of the 19th and 20th centuries; Darwin’s theories concerning the origins of humankind challenged the dominant  system of the natural order, an age-old set of beliefs that placed human origin in the hands of divine creation.
  • Finally, I chose Darwin due to the extraordinary quality and availability of NEH-funded resources, which I will discuss further on in this blog post.

 So, instead of doing a “cold” search using Google or Wikipedia, let’s try using EDSITEment’s resources when building your project, starting with primary source material from Chronicling America.

Step 1

First,we'll go to the Chronicling America website. Once there, the first thing to do is establish whether your topic is featured in the Recommended Topics section.  If it is, you have a head start doing your research, courtesy of the research librarians and historians on the Library of Congress staff.

On the left-hand side of the Chronicling homepage, click on the “Recommended Topics” link.

The title Topics in Chronicling America will pop-up, at which point you can search for your topic by using one of the following links:

No keywords need be entered. Simply look for the topic in the corresponding lists. Be careful, however, as some topics may not appear in full form, or may use different wording. For example, a student might want to report on Charles Darwin, but will not find “Charles Darwin” in the lists provided. On the other hand, “Darwin” can be found.

Step 2

Let’s suppose that you’ve found the [Charles] Darwin topic page in the alphabetical list. After clicking on Darwin, you should be brought to a summary overview of Charles Darwin in the database entitled Topics in Chronicling America—Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Every subject in the recommended topics’ list has a handy summary overview, giving students basic material, some key facts, an image, and important dates useful in establishing context. Here is the summary of Charles Darwin at the top of the topics page.

Known as the “Martin Luther” of his time, Charles Darwin shocks the world in 1859 and declares that humans are descendants of apes, rather than god’s humble creation. The religious community spirals into outrage, doing everything possible to thwart this man’s “delusional theory.” Darwin dies in 1882, but his evolution theory lives on, still managing to stir up controversy amongst preachers and scientists today. Read more about it!

This summary, as you’ll notice, does not rely on the humdrum explanation that might be found in a simple chronology of facts about Darwin. On the contrary, it calls forth an inquisitive spirit by prompting the student to ask such questions as:

  • What is the analogy between Martin Luther and Charles Darwin?
  • Why exactly was the religious community so up in arms over Darwin’s work?
  • How is Darwin’s theory of evolution still managing to stir up controversy over 120 years later?
  • If they were so controversial, what influenced Darwin to pursue his theories in the first place? 

Below the “important dates,” is a series of suggested search terms and a list of sample newspaper articles. The sample articles are an excellent starting point for a project because they offer unfiltered reporting about the man, his discoveries, and how Americans reacted to them.

There are many more relevant articles that you can find for yourself by typing “Charles Darwin” or any of the suggested terms in the search box.

Beyond Chronicling America, the following NEH resources in Step 3, available through EDSITEment, will help you transform the Darwin topic into a Darwin project.

Step 3 

Since 1975, NEH has provided funding for two major scholarly projects: the publication and digitalization of Darwin’s complete correspondence and his library. You can read about these projects in articles from Humanities magazine:  “Darwin the Young Adventurer” and “Darwin Letters from the Beagle.”

Next, plunge into Darwin’s correspondence or his library. These NEH-funded resources will connect your project with great scholarly repositories and introduce you to what scholars do when they work with archives. Moreover, the correspondence site has educational resources designed for K-12 students.

Finally, as you think about the wider implications of Darwin’s discoveries, you might want to listen to the podcast prepared for NPR’s religion in public life series On Being: Evolution and Wonder Understanding Charles Darwin, which brings together several distinguished scholars to talk about the way Darwin’s theory impacted and still impacts the world of faith.