Columbia fifth grader takes second in state geography bee

Saturday, April 4, 2009 | 4:26 p.m. CDT; updated 5:11 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 4, 2009

COLUMBIA — She may be 11, but she proved to have wisdom of the ages. Heather Graham knows the name of the ancient civilization that lived in the Urubamba Valley — the Incas — as well as the capital of modern day Pakistan — Islamabad.

Knowing states, countries and capitals will only get you so far in the Missouri State Geography Bee. Participants in the state bee on Friday also had to know religions, economies, landforms, monetary systems, histories and politics of the nations of the world.

Heather, a fifth-grade student representing the Columbia Homeschooling Resource Group, was the only Columbia student to advance to the final round of the state bee. She placed second overall, beating eight other finalists who were all older than her. She said she was shocked to get so far.

The champion of the state bee was Eric Matthews, an eighth-grade student from El Dorado Springs R-2 Middle School. He said he has been studying geography since kindergarten.

"When I was little, I pulled out the atlas and was fascinated with all the flags," he said.

When Eric was little, his room was decorated with flags from all over the world. This knowledge paid off when he knew the answer to a question during the final round that described Paraguay's flag.

Eric and 103 other students from the state competed Friday afternoon at Memorial Union on MU's campus. Each student won his or her school-sponsored geography bee and then took a test. Participants in Friday's bee represented the top test scorers from the state.

Heather and seven other students represented Columbia in the bee. They included Jiangao Fang of Fairview Elementary School, Tristan Wade of Lange Middle School, Eric Cropp of West Junior High School, Qiutai Pan of Christian Fellowship School, Daniel Shapiro of Smithton Middle School, Afsah Khan of Gentry Middle School, and Rasheeq Nizam of Jefferson Junior High School. Cropp and Pan both advanced to the tie-breaker round between preliminary competition and the final round.

The competition was intense and murmurs of amazement rippled through the crowd of families and teachers in the audience as students answered questions about countries and places foreign to most listeners. The geographic sources of rivers, names of small island nations and types of exports rolled with ease off the tongues of the competing students.

"It helps broaden their horizons," said Widget Ewing, a history teacher at Columbia Catholic School. She said, "(Theses students are) interested in the world and what happens in it, from a frog on a tree to international issues." 

Eric, the champion, will represent Missouri in Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Bee May 19 and 20. He said he looks forward to visiting the city where he someday hopes to reside as the Secretary of State.

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