Pine Lake Middle School Geography Bee tests young minds

January 22, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

Pine Lake Middle School students Ethan Hines (left) and Arjun Malhotra had to answer several tiebreaker questions in the championship round of the school’s geography bee. By Lillian O’Rorke

Pine Lake Middle School students Ethan Hines (left) and Arjun Malhotra had to answer several tiebreaker questions in the championship round of the school’s geography bee. By Lillian O’Rorke

What Chinese river does the Three Gorges Dam span? The city of Baltimore is next to what large bay? In what city is the Suleymaniye Mosque, which was built to honor the 16th century Ottoman ruler?

These were just some of the questions posed to Pine Lake Middle School students during its Geography Bee.

Since 2004, the school has hosted the trivia contest, part of the National Geographic Bee, a countrywide competition for students in grades four through eight. Designed to spark an interest in geography, the program starts each year with school bees held between November and January.

This year, nearly 50 Pine Lake students took part in the school’s preliminary round — taking a short test. From there, the seven top scorers gathered Jan. 8 to battle it out in the geography bee.

“This is probably one of the largest groups of participants I’ve had for the preliminary round,” said seventh-grade humanities teacher Karin Daar, who serves as the bee’s quiz master. “Just being here on the stage tonight is quite the achievement.”

Making the final cut was sixth-grade student Ethan Hines; seventh-graders Mahathi Allepally, Adil Islam, Arjun Malhotra and Will Carson; and eighth-grade students Riley Gill and Coby Boulware.

“I thought it was a good experience. It felt pretty good to be top 10 in the school,” Boulware, 13, said. “It was cool — they printed out a list and showed everyone … It felt good. I had no clue that I would be on it.”

Daar asked the students a series of questions. Onstage, contestants who had two wrong answers were eliminated. After seven rounds, the group had been whittled down to two.

“I was intimidated at first. It was hard, but I was surprising myself that I knew the answers,” said Gill, 13. “Some are major cities that I know and some were rivers and border states, and that was hard for me.”

As the last two left, 11-year-old Hines and 13-year-old Malhotra went into the championship round. Just like before, if no one came up with the correct answer, another question was given, but if one guessed wrong while the other came up with the right response, the competition would be over.

“I was nervous. I thought he would get one right. A lot of them, I was just guessing. I had no idea,” said Hines, the youngest of the group. “I like geography, and this is the first geography bee I’ve ever been in.”

After three rounds, Daar announced the next was the tie-breaker, but it took more than a dozen more questions to suss out the winner: Malhotra.

The final question — “Petroleum refining is an important industry for the city of Tulsa in what state?” — came down not to Malhotra’s study skills, but his love of football.

“I watch a lot of college football, and in one game I watched Tulsa play someone, and one of the commentators said that Tulsa was in Oklahoma,” he said, adding that it took a bit to get used to the questioning. “In the first round, they were extremely hard, but then afterwards I think I kind of adapted, and I got used to it.”

As the school’s winner, Malhotra will have 60 minutes to take a 70-question multiple-choice exam after school, which will then be submitted to the National Geographic Society. Top scorers will advance to state-level competition April 5. The winner of that competition will get to travel to Washington, D.C., for nationals, hosted by Alex Trebek.

If Malhotra makes it to the final level, it wouldn’t be the first time he met Trebek. The 13-year-old appeared on “Jeopardy!” last summer.

“I’ve just really done regular stuff, like reading books and looking up facts about geography, because that always helps me with these competitions,” he said about studying. As a fan of geography, it isn’t too much of a chore. “It’s cool to know about the world and how the world’s land features have come to be, because those impact us in our everyday life with trade and everything.”

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