These teens' knowledge of the world earned them a gold medal
Three teenagers from Mexico won the most recent National Geographic World Championship, held in San Diego.
Are you good at geography? Let's see if you can answer these questions: What is the name of Norway's second-largest city? Sea mist and fog are important sources of moisture in what desert located just east of Walvis Bay? What port city shares its name with the channel that separates Wales from southwestern England?
Don't feel bad if you didn't know all the answers without looking for them at the end of this article. Geography isn't a strong subject for many kids – or adults.
Only 37 percent of young Americans can find Iraq on a map – although though US troops have been there since 2003. Twenty percent think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.) And 48 percent believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu.)
In a 2002 survey of people 18 to 24 years old in nine nations, Americans scored next to the bottom in knowledge of geography. Only Mexicans placed lower.
But even before it commissioned this survey, the National Geographic Society knew how important geographic literacy is. It started the National Geographic Bee in the United States in 1989 "to encourage the teaching and study of geography."
An international version of the contest, the World Bee (or World Championship), began in 1993 and has been held every two years since.
Although the members of the Mexican team had difficulty hearing their translator, they had no difficulty translating their knowledge into a win at the 2007 National Geographic World Championship, held earlier this month at Sea World in San Diego.
This year's geography bee brought together 18 teams with three teens each from Argentina, Australia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States.
Questions ranged from identifying countries, landforms, and cultures to queries about history and the environment. (See box at the top of the next page for some of the actual questions.)
Coming out on top in the preliminary rounds, Canada was joined in the finals by the next two highest finishers – the US and Mexico. Moderator Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!" fame pointed out that this was a "mini-NAFTA." (NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links Canada, the US, and Mexico.)
The teams gathered on a specially built platform over the pool at Shamu Stadium. In the background, three performing orcas patrolled in their pool, seemingly ready to assist Mr. Trebek.
While killer whales shot water skyward out of their blowholes and seagulls soared overhead, the competitors answered questions about explorers, identified the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (a church turned mosque turned museum), and were asked about the official languages of several countries.
For the section on anthropological geography, the San Diego Museum of Man brought artifacts from various cultures for the competitors to identify.
The US team led until Round 8, when Mexico overtook them and never relinquished the lead. In a reversal of the geographic knowledge survey mentioned, Mexico came in first, and the US was second.
As the final point tallies revealed that Mexico had won, team captain Ángel Aliseda-Alonso's face lit up with joy.
What kind of teens are geography whizzes? Let's learn more about two of them: Ángel of the Mexican team and Marky Freeman of Canada.
Ángel the diplomat
After he and his team won, Ángel (pronounced "AHN-hel") was asked what his classmates back home might do when they found out he had won.
He explained that they would probably be very excited but surprised. While there are a number of competitions in math in his native land, there are few in geography.
A large group of supporters and fans in the stands at Shamu Stadium waved the Mexican flag and stood up to applaud the team after Mexico's first win in the 14-year history of this international contest.
Ángel and his teammates studied one to two hours each day. In spite of that, Ángel admitted that he didn't anticipate being in the finals since the US won the last competition (and several of the previous ones) and was expected to bring a terrific team.
The toughest part of the competition for him was the individual rounds in which he had to answer questions without the help of his teammates. But in a way, he had been preparing for the contest since he was 12. That's when he picked up his first book of maps, which intrigued him.
A high school senior at 16 years old, Ángel speaks three languages – English, French, and Spanish. He hopes this will serve him well when he grows up because his goal is to become his nation's ambassador to Spain or Britain.
Marky's love of maps
Marky became interested in geography when he was only 4 years old! One day when his dad, Michael, said that he needed to use a book of maps to guide him on a trip, Marky asked to see the maps and loved them. Since then, everyone has known what to give him for holidays and birthdays: atlases and books of maps.
Marky owns an atlas from the Politburo, the main policymaking office of the former Soviet Union. Because it was published to give Communists knowledge of the world, there was a drawing of one person in native costume next to each nation. For the US, the person was in a native American costume. And there was no map of South Korea.
According to his younger brother, Corey, who is obviously proud of his big brother, Marky "reads and reads and reads." For fun, Marky likes to listen to classical music, rock music, and Jewish folk music.
In school, he likes math, geography (of course), history, and theology (the study of religion). He loves baseball and hockey. Marky, who lives in Ontario, viewed the geography bee as a "good opportunity to meet new people" and to see San Diego.
Marky began displaying his aptitude for geography when he was 5. His dad opened an atlas and pointed to an island in the Indonesian Archipelago, saying that it was the island of Sri Lanka, where a family friend was born.
"No," said Marky firmly, pointing to an island off the coast of India. "She came from this one." He was right.
How do you get ready for a competition when team members live far from one another?
The Mexican team prepared by dividing up the topics. Each became an expert in certain areas. Ángel gave credit to Carlos and Emmanuel, his teammates, saying, "They know everything!"
US team members live in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Michigan. And the US coach, Kaitlin Yarnell, a graduate student in geography at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., didn't live close to any of them.
After being selected for the team in June, the US teammates divided up the world much as the Mexicans did, letting each person became an expert in the historical, political, economic, and physical geography of a specific area. Ms. Yarnell coordinated their activities and guided their studies.
Using e-mail, instant messaging, and a sprinkling of phone calls, the US team members quizzed one another, encouraged one another, and shared research materials.
They also read this newspaper to help them learn about recent events in political geography.
Team members Kelsey, Matthew, and Neeraj studied every day – but not all day! Each took time to have fun and to travel this summer with their families to as far away as Toronto.
That was learning about geography firsthand!
Answers to the questions in the first paragraph: Bergen; Namib Desert; Bristol.