Illinois Eighth Grader Wins National Geographic Bee

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
May 24, 2006
After a final hour of exhausting competition, Bonny Jain held up the
winning ticket for the 2006 National Geographic Bee: a card on which
he'd scrawled "Cambrian."

That word answered the tiebreaker: "Name the mountains that extend across much of Wales from the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel."

With his correct response, Jain claimed a U.S. $25,000 scholarship prize, the title of Bee champion, and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

(Video: Watch the championship round—and Jain's win.)

Of the ten finalists, three were girls, two of whom also happened to be the only homeschooled students among the top ten.

Jain, 12, represented his home state of Illinois for the second straight year. (Related news: "National Geographic Bee: State Winners Earn Their Titles" [April 6, 2005].)

Jeopardy! game show host Alex Trebek emceed the national geography competition for students in grades four through eight.

Last year Jain placed fourth in a field of more than 50 finalists from around the United States.

Trebek noted that the Moline resident's more modest finish in 2005 ended up being part of a good strategy. If he'd placed second or third, he wouldn't have been allowed to compete again this year, according to Bee rules.

"[Last year] I wanted first most, then fourth," Jain said.

His victory wasn't without a few nail-biting moments. At one point Trebek asked Jain to name the Saharan tribe that signed a 1995 peace agreement with the government of Niger.

"I was debated between the Tuareg and Fulani," Jain said later. After a moment's hesitation, he guessed Tuareg. The answer kept him in the match.

Other tough questions he answered with ease.

"The Kikuyu, who led the Mau Mau uprising against the British, are the largest ethnic group in which country in East Africa?" Trebek asked.

"Kenya," Jain replied.


Second-place finisher Neeraj S. Sirdeshmukh, 14, of Nashua, New Hampshire, also handled a series of stumpers.

Geothermal springs are an attraction near Rotorua in what country?

"New Zealand," Sirdeshmukh answered correctly.

Name the only African nation that has Spanish as its official language. "Equatorial Guinea."

From what northern Indian town, in a province of the same name, can one glimpse Mount Everest? "Darjeeling."

Sirdeshmukh's geographic knowledge may serve him well in the years to come. He aims to one day be elected secretary-general of the United Nations.

For now, thanks to his performance today at the National Geographic Society, he has U.S. $15,000 in funds to further his education.

Third-place finisher Yeshwanth R. Kandimalla, 13, of Marietta, Georgia, is also a repeat winner at the state level.

At one point in the competition, Trebek said to him, "Name the Australian island territory in the Indian Ocean that was named for the day it was seen in 1643."

"Christmas Island," Kandimalla replied. He took home a scholarship check worth U.S. $10,000.

Each of the other seven finalists received a U.S. $500 scholarship award.

Whiz Kids

As with many of the finalists, the victor's interest in geography started young. Jain was learning the flags and currencies of the world by age five, his mother, Beena Jain, says.

Geography isn't his only strong subject, though.

Later this month Jain will return to Washington, D.C., to compete with other finalists in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The two competitions keep his plate full, his mother says, so he doesn't compete nationally in math. That's ironic, she adds. "His strongest subject is math."

Jain hasn't yet entered high school, but he's not likely to have trouble finding a college where he can eventually spend his new scholarship money—he's already aced the SAT.

The other finalists in the top ten are Suneil K. Iyer, 11, of Olathe, Kansas; Krishnan V. Chandra, 13, of Andover, Massachusetts; Drew A. Coffin, 14, of Coralville, Iowa; Matthew J. Vengalil, 13, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan; Kelsey K. Schilperoort, 12, of Prescott, Arizona; Paige E. dePolo, 12, of Reno, Nevada; and Autumn R. Hughes, 12, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

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