COLUMBIA — In a way, Jack Langen has been studying for the National Geographic Bee since he could look at a map.
"I have always loved looking at maps and seeing where stuff is located, but it wasn’t until before state that I started memorization studying," said Jack, an eighth-grader at West Junior High School.
Earlier this year, the 14-year-old won the state bee. On Tuesday, he will represent Missouri in the geography bee finals in Washington, D.C.
"I’ve always liked geography, and (the bee) seemed like a fun way to apply it," Jack said.
When Jack competed in the bee in sixth grade, he made it to the state level. He lost at the class level last year. This year, he reasoned if he could make it to state in sixth grade, he could make it to state again in eighth.
But Jack was driven to participate by more than just the rush of competition. He also drew inspiration from his passions for geography and for learning about other people and cultures.
While most of his preparation for the competitions has come from previous knowledge, Jack still discovers new things. His father, Tim Langen, said it's important for Jack to connect with what he's learning and to apply that new information to what he already knows so he can retain it.
Jack said it helps him if he can tell someone else what he has learned that day.
"Not a day goes by that I don’t hear, ‘Hey Mom, did you know that — ?'" his mother, Amy Langen, said.
Jack has had a good support system throughout the competitions, but his parents and teacher insist he has been independent in his studying.
"Fourteen years with Jack, we have realized he is very self-directed, and motivation has to come from himself," Amy Langen said. "He has to be interested in it and want it."
Although his parents are willing to help him study when he asks, they have let him go on, on his own momentum. They want to encourage him, but they also want to let him define the experience for himself.
Kathy Reimler, a social studies teacher at West Junior High School, will meet the Langen family at the competition. Even though Reimler is not Jack's teacher, she gave him the entry test and has been acting as his education contact for the competition. Other than a few study materials, she said she has not played a huge role in his preparation.
"Kids that have success at that level are very independent in their study," Reimler said.
Jack was among more than 5 million students who participated in the competition by taking an entry level written test, according to information from the National Geographic Bee. He won the state competition March 30.
Jack is one of 54 fourth- through eighth-graders from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Atlantic and Pacific territories and Department of Defense-dependent schools who will compete in the national finals.
Reimler said it's good for West Junior High and Columbia to see one of their own representing the state in a national competition because it shows it's possible.
"He is just a typical kid," she said. "He is not walking down the halls with his nose in a geography bee book. I don’t think most people even know he is going."
The national winner receives a $25,000 scholarship, an all-expense paid trip to the Galápagos Islands and a lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society; second place gets a $15,000 college scholarship; and third, a $10,000 scholarship.
Jack said he doesn't know where he'd use his scholarship, but he does have some interest in studying international journalism and foreign language in college.
"I like to learn other languages and about people from different cultures," Jack said. "The more languages I know, the more people I can talk to."
And as for Tuesday, Jack said he feels like he is as prepared as he is going to be.
"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I'm just going to do my best and hope I do well."
The top 10 winners of the preliminary rounds Tuesday will compete in the championship Thursday. The championship will be moderated by "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek and will air on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.