LINCOLN SQUARE — In their matching white blouses and red bow ties, Nathalie Ocampo and Danelia Reyes looked far too sweet and innocent to be talking about the blood and guts of Chicago's infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre.
"It seemed exciting, very dramatic," said Ocampo, a student at McPherson Elementary, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave.
For the school's eighth-grade history fair, she and classmate Reyes took a deep dive into Chicago's gangster era to prepare their presentation, combing through newspaper archives among other sources to piece together the sequence of events that left seven mobsters dead back in 1929.
To play up the cinematic qualities of the subject matter, the two even created a one-minute video "trailer" that wouldn't look out of place on the History cable channel.
"The most shocking thing for both of us I guess was what happened after it," Ocampo said of the massacre. "No one got punished."
Comparing criminal activity during the Prohibition era to violence in present-day Chicago, Reyes said residents are safer today.
"I think back then was more dangerous because the police really didn't care ... they actually would trade alcohol," she said. "Now they're more strict."
Developing a deeper understanding of past events is one of the purposes of the history fair, according to Chris "Mr. O" Olszewski, humanities teacher at McPherson and history fair coach.
At the same time, the fair helps prepare the school's eighth-graders for high school, and ultimately college, by providing them with experience in conducting research, providing documentation, developing a thesis and proving an argument, he said.
For her project on the Chicago Transit Authority, Gabriella Garcia investigated the agency's impact on economic development, including the addition of the rail spur to O'Hare, which was constructed much later than Garcia had originally thought. To add some razzle-dazzle to her poster-board presentation, she included a pair of yellowed transfer stubs purchased from a shop in Andersonville and toy "L" cars bought in Lincoln Square.
The wonder of discovery could be found in students like Emily Perez, who talked excitedly about the Ferris wheel that debuted at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
"It was twice the size of the one at Navy Pier and its cars could hold 60 people," she said, sounding like a worthy heir to WTTW's Geoffrey Baer.
Bob Farster, chairman of McPherson's Local School and one of the fair's judges, was impressed with the level of scholarship and creativity on display.
"Their world needs to be bigger than their neighborhood," he said of the students. "They're now a part of things."
A history major himself, Farster said the subject teaches students to connect to their past, a point driven home by student Cyan Balantac, who chose Hull House as the topic of her research.
"I liked that they helped the immigrants," she said. "I think that we can learn that we should take in oncoming people, because it's our job to help them."
Asked about the value of studying history, Balantac responded with a wisdom beyond her years: "I think the most important thing about history is that once we learn it, we shouldn't make the same mistakes that people in the past did."