Two Columbia students place in top 10 at statewide geography bee

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 | 3:50 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Two Columbia Public School students placed in the top 10 at Friday's statewide Missouri geography bee, held at Moberly Area Community College to select a contestant for the National Geographic Bee in Washington D.C.

Seventh-grader Rohit Rao, 13, represented Gentry Middle School, and eighth-grader Daniel Shapiro, 14, represented West Junior High School. Rohit placed second and Shapiro placed sixth in the state.

Early interests in geography

When he was 8, Daniel started making his own world atlas, his father, Nick Shapiro, said. Daniel said he arranged countries in his atlas by alphabetical order.

"The one that took the longest was Brazil — I spent a week on it," Daniel said. "It just had a lot of cities."

By the time he got to "F" in the alphabet — France, to be specific — he decided, "this is getting pretty tough.'" He filed his atlas away, but he stored the geographic details in his memory, where it came in handy in geography bees several years later.

Rohit's mother, Kalpana Rao, said that when her son was around 4 or 5, he would often take a small globe to bed to look at while winding down for sleep.

"I would have to take it away," she said.

Whenever she took the globe, she said he would start asking questions about mountain ranges and other features he had been looking at.

Missouri hosts a statewide geography bee each year, as do all states and U.S. territories. Google Inc. and Plum Creek, a forestry and wood-products corporation in the Northwest, co-sponsored the state-level competitions. This is the second year Google has co-sponsored the state competitions.

For the winner of the national contest, there is a $25,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and an all-expense paid trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Rohit and Daniels's trip to the statewide geography bee started with a National Geographic test administered to all public school students in Columbia from fourth to eighth grade. The top-scoring student from each classroom then competed in a school-wide geography bee, Nick Shapiro said.

The top 10 students from that bee were then given a "qualifying test" to verify their geographic knowledge, Shapiro said. Students with the top 100 scores from the state were selected for the annual statewide bee.

State competition is their domain

Both Rohit and Daniel have advanced to the statewide competition each time they participated in their school's contest.

Shapiro said the state contest "gets pretty exciting — the top 100 (students) in the state and their level of geographic excellence. The final 10 are so good; it's pretty amazing."

At Friday's state competition, Daniel said, "I was really nervous during the prelim round," referring to a set of eight questions used to narrow the starting field of 102 competitors down to 10. He said he thought, "If I screw up here, I'm dead." Students can miss one question and remain in the competition — miss a second question, though, and it's over.

Daniel got into the top 10, but was eliminated when he incorrectly identified the country that borders both Libya and Burkina Faso as Mali; in fact, the country is Niger.

Rohit was one of the final two contestants when he was asked what country contained "Saxony." That was the last question in the contest, and one he couldn't answer. Saxony is in Germany.

Despite their losses, the students still have big plans. Rohit wants to return to the state competition next year for another chance at the National Geography Bee. Daniel, who won't be able to compete next year because he will enter the ninth grade, hopes to join the diplomatic corps when he gets older.

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