Hayward seventh-grader wins state geographic bee at CRC

03/31/2012 12:00 AM

04/01/2012 12:49 PM

Varun Mahadevan identified Estonia as the most recent country to join the eurozone to win the 2012 California Geographic Bee on Friday afternoon at Cosumnes River College.

The seventh-grader from Hayward will represent California at the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., on May 22-24.

"If you have a student here, it's a remarkable achievement," said Stephen Cunha, state bee coordinator, to the parents crowded into the college rehearsal hall.

The 100 students competing Friday had all won their school geography bees, then qualified for the state competition by passing a written test.

Competition was fierce. Twenty-two of the fourth- through eighth-grade students competing answered every question correctly through the first eight preliminary rounds – a California record, Cunha said. Thirty-nine more answered seven of the eight questions correctly.

"It was extraordinary," said Cunha, a professor of geography at Humboldt State University. "These kids have a tremendous grasp of how the world is ordered. They understand religion, commerce, economics, cultures and environmental issues."

The Sacramento region was represented by seven students: Eric McKinley of Carmichael, Samuel Goidell of Davis, Vashton Smith and Raj Ajudia of Folsom, Hunter Davis of Granite Bay, Cole Anderson of Healdsburg and Marc Chappelle of Roseville.

The top local finisher was Goidell, who tied for sixth place. Last year, he correctly answered seven of eight questions in the preliminary rounds – coming up just short of the finals.

This year was different. The 13-year-old seventh-grader from Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High calmly answered every question correctly in the preliminary rounds, becoming the only contestant from the greater Sacramento area to move on to the tiebreaker round, then the finals.

"I was really excited," Goidell said. "I did not expect to get that far."

He attributes his success to "a good memory" and the fact that geography is "just so interesting."

Goidell was among 20 students sent to Room 158 for the preliminary rounds early in the day. Ajudia of Folsom Middle School and Anderson of the Healdsburg School also were in that group. The other 80 students were divided into four other rooms.

It quickly became clear this wasn't your grandfather's geography bee. Instead of being asked to name state capitals, students were asked questions in categories such as "World Crop Production," "U.S. Cities," "World Geography" and "Current Events."

"The Shatt Al Arab forms part of the boundary between Iraq and what other country?" the judge asked Ajudia in round seven.

"Saudi Arabia," he answered.

"Wrong. Iran," said the judge.

His dad sighed from the fourth row. His son had whizzed through seven rounds before he was stumped.

Ajudia and his brother, Om, stick pins in a map on the living room wall each night to mark the countries they hear about on the news.

Anderson, an eighth-grader, was visibly nervous during the preliminary matches but answered seven of the eight questions correctly.

Goidell said he will try for the title again next year. But in the meantime, he will concentrate on playing first base on his baseball team – the Demons.

Cunha sees similar trends among the junior geography whizzes. "They all read," he said. "They read and they read and they read."

He said many of them also travel. A number of the contestants are children of immigrants with families that live on other continents, he said.

First prize for the state competition was $100 and a trip to Washington, D.C. Second prize was $75, and third prize was $50. The winner of the national contest will win a $25,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

"In a practical sense, great issues in American life – oil, warfare, climate change, immigration patterns – these are major things that understanding geography will help clarify," Cunha said. "These kids have a leg up."

"Your country needs you," he said to the students. "If you run for public office, I'll vote for you."

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