The 600 students were all given the same assignment: Tell a story from history that invokes both triumph and tragedy.

Their carefully reasoned answers — ranging from when the polio vaccine came into use in 1955 to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — went head to head at St. Paul Public Schools' annual History Day competition Saturday.

For Elena Davis, a seventh-grader at Open World Learning Community, Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph seemed like the quintessential example of triumph over tragedy.

Rudolph, who was black, survived polio, scarlet fever, an immobilizing childhood leg brace and the searing racial segregation of her era to win three golds in 1960.

"It's inspiring to me because I also wear a brace," Davis said.

Students in grades 6 through 12 packed the halls of Johnson High School to compete in five categories including exhibit board, website, documentary, live performance and paper. Winners advance to the state competition at the University of Minnesota later this spring and potentially nationals in June in Washington D.C.

Wakinyan DeCory, a sixth-grader at American Indian Magnet School and a member of the Sauk tribe, drew from his own community's history.

He explored the 1763 rebellion at the British-controlled Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Michigan, where the Ojibwe and Sauk tribes used a lacrosse game to smuggle in weapons and launch their attack. In his entry, DeCory said the tribes were triumphant in the siege but "The tragedy of the American Indian loss of homelands had just begun."

DeCory displayed his own lacrosse stick, quietly explaining that the sport invented by American Indians was originally called baggataway.

He waited for judges to examine his work. Being able to answer judges' questions on the fly went into the overall scoring.

In the 1970s, a history professor in Ohio started the notion of turning historical research into a competition. National History Day now attracts half a million students across the country researching and competing each year.

In Minnesota, about 27,000 students from 250 schools participate each year, said Sammi Jo Papas, an assistant National History Day in Minnesota coordinator with the Minnesota Historical Society.

"Students get to pick whatever topic interests them. Students go back to the collapse of Rome all the way up to 9/11," Papas said. "One of the big skills kids are learning is analysis and interpretation."

The Historical Society and the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts oversee History Day across the state. It's funded by the state Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, created by voters in 2008.

Longtime friends Kate Kaatz, Kate Reubish and Jill Evans explored the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the changes made to ocean liners afterward. The seventh-graders from Highland Park Middle School spent several minutes chatting with volunteer judges Elizabeth Lamin and Christine Heimann about their research.

"Ship safety was greatly improved afterward. No one wanted a repeat of this tragic event," Reubish said.

Lamin and Heimann, both repeat judges, are history buffs who enjoy seeing how students interpret each year's theme. This year's theme of triumph and tragedy challenged students' analytical skills, Heimann said.

"It's seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Heimann said. "I like it."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804