Caroline Bruton

WMMS student Caroline Bruton shows off her district and state medals and national award ribbon from this year’s National History Day contest outside her home on the Blue Ridge School campus.

COVID-19 may have kept rising William Monroe Middle School eighth-grader Caroline Bruton from attending the annual National History Day (NHD) competition this year, but that didn’t stop her from bringing home third place in the country for the Junior Division individual documentary category as well as a Next Generation Angels Award for her project, “Penicillin: Breaking Bacterial Barriers.”

“My project was about the discovery, development and use of penicillin in World War II,” Bruton said. “When I was thinking of it, all I knew was that it was the first antibiotic and I thought that sounded interesting, so I researched more and found out that it was used in World War II which interested me more.”

On March 10, NHD contestants attended the district competition at the University of Virginia, just days before schools were closed for what at the time was expected to be a two-week period.

“We were really lucky to get to go to districts because other district competitions had to do theirs virtually,” Bruton recalled.

Bruton won second place at the district competition March 10 and advanced to the state competition in April, which was done virtually because of the newly mandated school closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the state level, Bruton won second in the documentary category once again.

“For documentaries, it really wasn’t that different except that we didn’t get student interviews afterwards,” Bruton said. “Usually the judges ask questions about your project [at the competition]. For performances and other categories, it was really different.”

Although a normal state or national competition would see students from different areas interacting, talking about their projects and attending workshops, this year’s virtual competition was somewhat limited, though there is an online project gallery and attempts were made to hold online versions of some workshops for the national competition.

“After states we had two weeks to improve our project based on the judges’ comments,” Bruton said. During that time, she updated her project’s thesis and conclusion and added in music to some segments of the video before submitting her project to the judges for the national competition.

Only the top two entries from each state for a given category are invited to the national contest. Marla Bruton, Greene County teacher and Caroline’s mom, was extremely proud of her daughter’s success when the results were released May 4.

On Friday May 8, teachers from William Monroe Middle School drove around the county in a car parade to cheerfully congratulate the nine students with winning projects in the state competition while remaining socially distant.

“We absolutely love Caroline; she is a model student,” said history teacher Stephanie Hammer, who participated in the parade.

In a normal year, the national competition would have taken place at the University of Maryland at College Park, with nearly 3,000 students and their families gathering from across the country and several international schools for a week-long event.

This year, the competition consisted of online project submittal, a live video awards ceremony and interactive group workshops on Zoom.

“They tried to replicate it as much as they could, which was nice, but it couldn’t really be the same,” Bruton said.

Starting in September or October each year, middle and high school students work with teachers, often after school due to the depth of the research involved, to create projects for entry into the district competition in the spring. Bruton says her teacher, Stephanie Hammer, who in 2018 was honored by the National History Day program with a scholarship to study World War I with teachers from around the world, was instrumental in helping her prepare for the competitions this year.

“I really liked the process of making the project,” she said. “I liked doing the video editing—I enjoy that a lot. You learn a lot of things about your topic and then you get to make it into a project so just researching it, which is really fun, and then you get to present it, which is scary, but it’s fun to present it as well.”

Rather than presenting her project to a panel of judges at the national competition and answering questions about her process, Bruton submitted her video and waited days for the results. When they announced she had won third overall, she was stunned.

“We were at the beach, and we were on our way home, so we stopped at our grandma’s house because the awards ceremony was at three o’clock and we didn’t think we would get back on time,” Bruton recalled. “So we just kind of stopped there and pulled it up. I didn’t think I was going to win anything because there are so many projects.”

In addition to her medals for the district and state competitions, Bruton will be receiving a medal for her third place win at the national competition along with a small cash prize.

When asked about the most interesting finding of her project, Bruton described how the war impacted the development of penicillin.

“During World War II the Allied powers were concerned that the Axis powers would learn how to make penicillin,” she explained. “France and the Netherlands, even though they were under Nazi occupation, worked to develop it, and the Netherlands came up with a code name for penicillin so that the German soldiers wouldn’t know that they were making it because they didn’t want it to get into the hands of the Axis powers. They called it Bacinol. I thought that was really cool.”

The Angels Award is bestowed in partnership with NHD by the Better Angels Society in honor of Ken Burns to congratulate young historians who use the film medium to tell the American story. In years past, recipients have received all-expense-paid trips for students and chaperones to visit Washington, D.C., for a Library of Congress awards ceremony and dinner along with a documentary film screening at the American Film Institute Theater’s Student History Film Festival.

This year’s Next Generation Angels Award winners will be honored in a virtual ceremony, according to the society’s website.

“We could not be more proud of Caroline and her placing in the National History Day competition,” said Librarian Lauren Garletts of William Monroe Middle School. “Before schools were abruptly closed just before our state competition, Caroline was spending every free minute in the school library researching, editing, tweaking and seeking advice. All of her classroom teachers supported her efforts and allowed her to work independently on her documentary when she had completed her other work and encouraged her along the way.”

Garletts, who participated in the car parade after the announcement of the state finalists in May along with history teacher Stephanie Hammer and language arts teacher Allison Hughes, admired Bruton’s dedication to the project.

“Caroline’s exceptional work ethic, drive and desire to always make her documentary just a little bit better is admirable,” she said. “This bright young woman will change our world for the better by sheer force of will.”

Bruton’s award-winning documentary is available to view through the National History Day website at

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