National Geographic Bee: Preliminary Round in Pictures

When I arrived at the Doubletree Crystal City in Arlington, VA this morning, the place was buzzing with world chatter. I overheard conversations about official languages and state capitals as parents and Bee competitors fueled up over breakfast.

As mentioned yesterday, the 55 competitors (ages 10-14) have won school and state championships to qualify for this national final. They are a talented group of students with interests that reach far beyond geography — they are musicians, athletes, Boy & Girl Scouts, artists, writers and video game champs. They admire the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Ben Franklin and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond.

According to their event bios, some of these savvy students have visited Istanbul, Paris, China, the Galapagos, Mexico, Bahamas, Nova Scotia, Pompeii, Japan, Iceland, Zion and Yellowstone National Parks. And they aspire to visit places like Dubai, Dublin, Polynesia, Belize, New Zealand and Egypt. But they were here today because they know a lot more about tons of places they have never been to.

Here’s a photo recap from the morning’s events:

The preliminary round goes like this: The participants are randomly broken into five groups that compete simultaneously in different rooms. Each group competes for ten rounds of questioning — one practice round and nine official rounds. In each of the five rooms where competition takes place, there is a moderator (who asks the questions), a scorekeeper, timekeeper and judge. The room I sat in on was moderated by Robert Dulli, Deputy to the Chairman at National Geographic. Here he is (on the right) with the official judge for this group, Scott Zillmer of XNR Productions, a custom cartography company:

The ten rounds of competition are broken down into different categories. The practice round was a mix of general geography questions, and was the only round in which the participants could choose between two possible answers. The other nine questions were grouped around specific topics: World Geography, Analogies, Physical Land Form Terms, Governments of the World, National Parks of the World, Political Geography, Current Events, Geography of the Southern Hemisphere and a final round in which the students had to rank three places according to specific characteristics.

Here are a few sample questions, repeated here in abbreviated phrasing. The exact questions to participants were slightly longer than this. I’ll leave you hanging without answers, maybe you know them…and if not, Google can help…

Saba, a state on the island of Borneo, belongs to which country?

Bordeaux is to Aquitaine as Dresden is to what?
(Only two of the 11 kids in my group got the analogy questions right, they seemed particularly challenging.)

What is the term for mid-latitude grasslands in Inner Mongolia?
(The land forms category included slide photos like this:)

And the current events questions involved use of a map with numbered countries. Students had to name the country and corresponding number on the map, Questions covered news as varied as the January 2007 US embassy attack in Greece and a February 2007 controversy over smoked cheese between Slovakia and Poland.

After the first four rounds of questioning, two contestants in the group I was observing, Ben Geyer and Michael Ling, both had perfect scores. The pink dots next to the contestants names indicate the two questions they may ask during the competition. They are only allowed two chances to ask for a question to be repeated or for a word to be spelled:

The final round of questions asked participants to rank three countries based on a specific characteristic such as literacy rate, population growth, date of independence, land area, average rainfall or distance from the Tropic of Cancer. Most of these were answered quickly and correctly…these kids know their geo stats!

When the final round had been completed, these were the scores for this group:

The Bens seemed to have it — and just happened to be seated next to each other too!

But we were asked to stay put in the room until the scores in all five rooms could be tabulated to see if a tie-breaker was necessary. I was sure that would be the case, but for the first time in the history of the competition, there was no need — exactly ten participants had overall scores of 8 and 9, so there was no need to go further.

The ten finalists were announced in the grand ballroom:

Tomorrow’s final will be moderated by Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek. I hope to be able to bring you news about the winner as soon as it happens. There will be more about the quiz questions and other interesting things about the National Geographic Society and the Bee to come later this week. And I’ve got a short interview with one of the finalists coming up in a bit.