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2014 National Geographic Geography Bee Finals with Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli (right) and TUyua Bergson-Michelson (left)

Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli (right) was named the 2014 National Geographic Bee winner.

PHOTOGRAPH BY REBECCA HALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Dan Stone

National Geographic

Published May 21, 2014

If you can't name the world's most densely populated country, then you wouldn't have made it too far past the first round in the National Geographic Bee.

The nationwide contest got a new champion, Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli, on Wednesday, after a dramatic competition hosted by television journalist Soledad O'Brien that featured just such puzzlers.

Each representing their home state, ten students flew through that first-round population question, by the way, moving on to the next round with barely a smile. The answer: Monaco.

The annual event held at National Geographic's Washington, D.C., headquarters peppers students with questions about mountain peaks and obscure national borders, one at a time until only one remains. Rekulapelli bested more than four million students, who originally competed in school-level bees across the U.S.

The competition on stage was formidable: nine other students, including three who previously had competed in the finals. After winning his school bee in Ashburn, Virginia, Rekulapelli advanced to both a regional and state geography bee before being invited to the national championship. Students who qualify between fourth and eighth grade come with their parents to demonstrate their mastery of maps and the world's many idiosyncrasies.

2014 National Geographic Geography Bee Final with Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli (left), Soledad O'Brien (center) and Ameya Mujumdar.
Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli (left) and Florida fifth grader Ameya Mujumdar (right) answer Soledad O'Brien's questions during the final round.
PHOTOGRAPH BY REBECCA HALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Mountains of Questions

The Geographic Bee works much like a spelling bee. This year's host, Soledad O'Brien, asked each student his or her own question. Every few rounds, several students were asked to leave the stage. The departures often come with visible heartbreak and emotion, the mountains of expectations from parents and teachers mixed with the disappointment of falling short.

Never mind that most people couldn't answer the type of obscure questions the Bee is known for. Far from simply quizzing about country capitals, the Bee's question writers often ask about the names and locations of rivers, deserts, and time zones—like this question from one of the preliminary rounds:

Hoover Dam is to the Colorado River as Atatürk Dam is to what?

The Euphrates River.

One of the most dramatic moments during the Bee came during an elimination tiebreaker. Three students were asked to estimate the diameter of the Earth at the equator—in miles. Eleven-year-old Ameya Mujumdar knew the exact answer: 7,926 miles.

But he couldn't beat Virginia's Rekulapelli, who answered every question correctly. Interviewed after the competition, Rekulapelli told National Geographic that he kept a strict long-distance study regimen with a coach in Florida.

"My coach gives me tips and tricks, like about what questions they'll ask and how to respond," Rekulapelli said. "Then I really try to get a good outlook on very big countries, like Canada and Spain. I also have to make sure I stay on top of the news, like by watching CNN and other channels, to make sure I know about changes."

As for what career a geography whiz kid is best suited for, Rekulapelli said he wants to one day go pre-med or study biology. At 13, he's already eying Stanford and University of Virginia.

Watch the final round of the 2014 National Geographic Bee.

International Competition

The geography contest was created in 1989 in response to concern about a lack of geographic knowledge among American young people. Four years later, National Geographic created the World Geographic Bee to foster international competition. The ten finalists this year and next year will vie for spots on a three-person team that will represent the United States next year in Stockholm.

Rekulapelli's win comes with the enviable prize of a $50,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galápagos with National Geographic's Lindblad Expeditions. Second place, for Florida's Mujumdar-who knew the Equator's exact dimensions—comes with $25,000. California's Tuvya Bergson-Michelson will take home $10,000.

Last year's winner, a Massachusetts 12-year-old named Sathwik Karnik, won by knowing the tallest mountain peak on Earth, when the Earth's bulge at the Equator is taken into consideration. Answer: Chimborazo.

This question this year that decided the championship: Oyala, a planned city located in the rainforest 65 miles east of Bata, is being built as a capital for which African country? If you're between fourth and eighth grade and would have answered Equatorial Guinea, you might have a shot next year.

The National Geographic Channel will air the final round of the Bee at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, May 22.

10 comments
J. Mohan
J. Mohan

 wow... CONGRATS Akhil and Ameya... way to go !!!

Kevin Babu
Kevin Babu

Congrats Akhil!

Your friend Kevin B from VA!

Great job representing our state you really deserve this! :)

Mark Prochaska
Mark Prochaska

I believe that the issue of underrepresentation of the female gender in this geographic competition is way more pervasive than can be explained by lack of "educational opportunities," etc.  That is like saying that the NBA is 90% African-American because there are a lot of basketball courts in the inner city.  Clearly basketball is a sport (along with many others, obviously) that showcases the physical advantages that blacks possess, like more fast twitch muscle fiber, different insertion of the Achilles tendon, etc.


Although there are many exceptions, my experience has led me to the opinion that males in general like maps better than females.  I believe that there are functional brain studies that show that woman use different parts of their brains when giving someone directions than males do.  They use landmarks in their directions, while men tend to use more compass directions.


Why might this be?  Perhaps women, more responsible for the intimate care of their offspring, were evolutionarily advantaged if they stayed close to their home base, picking berries, etc. if they wandered at all away from the cave.  The men, doing the hunting for living protein sources further away from the home base, needed more far reaching methods to find their way back to their family, like astronomical cues, etc.


Obviously, this is all purely speculation, and probably very politically incorrect in this era where men and women are supposed to be equal in everything, but can't we at least explore and talk about the issue?  I certainly believe that both genders should have equal opportunities to pursue geographical matters, and girls should be highly encouraged to follow this path, but it is hard to totally deny intrinsic differences.


On the other hand, females have advantages in many other areas.  For instance, the gender breakdown is much different for the spelling bees.

Lisa L
Lisa L

Food for thought: Did anyone notice (at the end of the video) just HOW ***FEW*** GIRLS participated/made it to the finals? Still, to this day, there is NOT a level playing field for half of the population–and this includes from the start: girls are not getting the educational opportunities to excel in a competition such as this. This begs the question: what about math, the sciences and the humanities??


I would like to see what efforts National Geographic can put forth to rectify this imbalance in the intellectual development of half our nation's resources. Changing this statistic would make everyone a winner.

Ella C.
Ella C.

@Lisa L I competed in the Virginia geography bee (against Akhil). One of the female judges told me that there were 23 girls competing, the highest number ever, and that 15 years ago there were barely any girls. So, the numbers are improving, however incrementally. 

John M
John M

@Lisa L

My DAUGHTER competed against Akhil at the VA State Geo bee, for the second time this year (Congrats, Akhil. Come see me in 10 years if you want to date my daughter). She was not the only girl there. Are girls underrepresented? Sure, but that doesn't mean they're being held back by some sinister force of female oppression. They're simply the product (victims) of their parents low expectations.

This is not a problem for National Geographic to fix, if it is a problem at all. Your "from the hip" suggestion that it is NatGeo's "problem" to fix demonstrates your willingness to pass off the responsibility of children's achievement on people other that the children's parents. You'll never be a winner so long as you're content to be a whiner!And here's a NEWSFLASH for you: we can't all be winners. That would make us all AVERAGE.

John M
John M

@Lisa L

My DAUGHTER competed against Akhil at the VA State Geo bee, for the second time this year (Congrats, Akhil. Come see me in 10 years if you want to date my daughter). She was not the only girl there. Are girls underrepresented? Sure, but that doesn't mean they're being held back by some sinister force of female oppression. They're simply the product (victims) of their parents low expectations.

This is not a problem for National Geographic to fix, if it is a problem at all. Your "from the hip" suggestion that it is NatGeo's "problem" to fix demonstrates your willingness to pass off the responsibility of children's achievement on people other that the children's parents. You'll never be a winner so long as you're content to be a whiner!And here's a NEWSFLASH for you: we can't all be winners. That would make us all AVERAGE.

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