At age 3, Rahul Nagvekar couldn't put down a globe. This week he turned 14, and his obsession has paid off. He can tell you—under klieg lights and televised pressure—which Bavarian city located on the Danube River was a legislative seat of the Holy Roman Empire from 1663 to 1806.
On Thursday morning, the lean, piano-playing eighth-grader from Quail Valley Middle School near Houston answered "Regensburg"—and emerged the victor in a tense fourth-round tiebreaker at the Google-sponsored 2012 National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C.
Video: 2012 National Geographic Bee's Tense Final Moments
His spoils? A U.S. $25,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society, a trip to the Galápagos Islands (see the itinerary)—and, of course, a lifetime of brainiac bragging rights for besting nine other geo whiz-kid finalists from across the United States. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
(On TV: The finals air as Geo Bee 2012 on the National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)
"It was very stressful," Nagvekar said of Thursday's final, a look of weary relief on his bespectacled face.
"I knew the competition was tough. But I also knew that if I was calm and that if I was focused, I would be able to do what I did. But really, my hope was just to get all of the questions correct—I was less concerned with coming in first or second."
(Related: "National Geographic Bee Won on Everest Stumper" .)
Try, Try Again
This year's competition was long and heated. Brows were furrowed. Nails were chewed. Sighs and gasps were heaved.
Twelve seconds isn't much time to answer: "What city that lies on the Volga River delta is an important shipping center for the Caspian Sea region?" (Answer: Astrakhan [map]).
Yes, it's a geography quiz, but it's also a numbers game.
The initial field consists of millions of fourth- to eighth-grade students, ages 10 to 14. After various eliminations, 54 kids—representing 50 states and four U.S. jurisdictions—reached Tuesday's semifinal round, which winnowed the field to 10.
(Sample question: The border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed in response to a conflict over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. This disputed area is claimed by what other country that borders Armenia. Answer: Azerbaijan.)
And today there is one.
"I've prepared for this since I was in the fourth grade," said Nagvekar. "It's been a great way to learn about the world."
National Geographic Bee Director Mary Lee Elden said, "Kids who come here really want it bad. So if they don't win, they go back and they study even more.
"Students are more prepared each year. So we've had to make the questions harder, or else the contest would go on and on and on," added Elden, who founded the contest in 1989, in part to promote geographic education.
Three of this year's finalists—Wisconsin's Vansh Jain, 13; Utah's Anthony Cheng, 13; and Karthik Karnik, 14, of Massachusetts—had been this far before.
For Jain, a third time in the finals wasn't the charm. He finished second but won a $15,000 college scholarship.
Third place, and a $10,000 college scholarship, went to seventh Varun Mahadevan, 13, of California.
And Raghav Ranga, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Arizona, received $1,000 cash for coming in fourth.
So How Many Hours of Study Do You Need to Win?
To prepare for the 24th annual Geo Bee, Nagvekar said he pored over maps, paged through publications, and constantly consulted an atlas. But it never felt like work.
"Geography is full of surprises," he said, "and that's what makes it exciting. And once it's exciting, you don't think of it as studying. You think of it as fun."
Standing on stage after the final, his father, Manoj Nagvekar, said he could tell his son was geographically precocious when a three-year-old Rahul became fixated on a globe he was given.
"He's good at a lot of things," the proud father said, "but geography has always been his passion."
To foster his son's interest, Manoj would "find geographical questions for him wherever I could, then try to make them harder." But he credits his wife, Urmila, with the recent competition tutoring. To prepare, mother and son spent up to two hours of quiz time every day, even on weekends.
The New Geo Bee Twists: It's Obama! And a Lemur!
In past Bees two wrong answers meant elimination. This year a new scoring system debuted, with strategy at the fore.
Contestants tracked their scores via LCD screens, using the tally to decide if a challenge question was worth the risk. Correct answers won them bonus points. Wrong answers cost players parts of their totals. During each elimination stage, contestants with the two lowest scores were dismissed.
There were other bells and whistles too: President Obama posed a relatively easy question via videotape, asking for the name of the Asian capital city on the Han River that hosted March's Nuclear Security Summit. (Answer: Seoul [map]).
And handlers brought two species of wildlife—a southern ground hornbill from southern Africa and a red-ruffed lemur from an island near Madagascar—onstage before habitat questions were asked.
But some things were familiar. As in years past, the 2012 competition had a Jeopardy!-like feel. And no wonder: Alex Trebek is the host. The question-asking Canadian believes that the Geo Bee represents a discipline everyone should be acquainted with.
"If you understand geography," he said, "you have a better understanding of the world and the civilizations that occupy the world, and the similarities and differences among them.
"And—at the risk of sounding like a hippie—that understanding can only lead to peace on earth."
So how's his sense of geography?
"Unlike the caricature of adult males," Trebek said, "my ego is never put in jeopardy—if you'll pardon the pun—by asking for directions.
"I've never been embarrassed to ask someone when I'm lost. Not that I get lost very often. In fact, my sense of direction is so good that my nickname used to be 'the Apache.'"
Where Are the Girls?
Boys have always dominated the Bee, and this year was no exception.
Only one of the ten finalists was a girl—Neelam Sandhu, a 13-year-old seventh grader from New Hampshire. And while there was a record number of girls among this year's state finalists, they tallied only eight. The previous high was seven.
Just two girls have ever won the 24-year-old annual geography competition. In spelling bees, by contrast, the winners tend to be half boys and half girls.
In the Geo Bee "there's always been a huge imbalance of boys winning," said Lynn Liben, a developmental psychologist at Penn State University who conducted a 1996 study on the role of gender in the contest.
She found that, on average, boys test slightly better than girls when it comes to geography, although the reasons are unclear.
During the many stages of the Bee's preliminaries, she said, "a slight difference gives you the edge each time. It's like if you're a runner, if you're just a little bit better, you're going to win the race. It doesn't mean that the person who came in second is a slow slug."
Another demographic trend this year was hard to miss: Seven of the ten finalists were of South Asian descent.
There are at least a couple of reasons for that, said Ratnam Chitturi, founder of the North South Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization with 86 centers for U.S. children of Indian backgrounds.
One of the reasons is his group, which emphasizes geographic learning through workshops and rigorous regional competitions modeled on the Geo Bee.
In fact, three of the ten Geo Bee finalists this year—runner-up Jain of Wisconsin, third-place finisher Mahadevan of California, and Karnick of Massachusetts—won or placed in recent North South Foundation bees.
Also, said Chitturi, many South Asian immigrants arrive here as highly trained professionals who as parents stress education, exploration, curiosity ... and memorization.
Aspiring contestants who don't have the advantage of North South Foundation drill work can turn to a past Bee winner for help.
Andrew Wotjanik, the 2004 champ, who's graduating this year from Georgetown University with a degree in international relations, turned his computerized crib notes into an official Bee study guide, republished this year as the National Geographic Bee Ultimate Fact Book: Countries A to Z.
Maybe then you'd be ready for this query, used as a tiebreaker in the final round: The Khatanga Gulf borders what large Russian peninsula south of the Seernaya Zemlya island group?
Both finalists knew the answer: the Taymyr peninsula (map).
- For those with a geo jones of their own, the National Geographic GeoBee Challenge app, with more than a thousand questions culled from past Bees, is available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, or in the Android Market.
- Also, National Geographic Books recently updated geography professor Stephen Cunha's How to Ace the National Geographic Bee: Official Study Guide, Fourth Edition.
- Next year a total of three finalists from 2012 and 2013 will be chosen to represent the United States at the 11th National Geographic World Championship. That contest—featuring three-player teams from 18 countries—will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia.