Indian-American whiz kids earn top three spots in 2019 GeoBee; Atreya Mallanna is in second place and Rishi Kumar finishes third
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, May 27, 2019 – Indian-American whiz kids have been winning both the national geography and spelling competitions in recent years, but 2019 marks a first: Nihar Janga, 14, of Texas has been crowned the new National Geographic GeoBee champion some three years after he was declared co-winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He is the only student in America to win both the prestigious competitions – an incredible feat!
This is the eighth consecutive year that an Indian-origin kid has been crowned champion of the GeoBee, formerly the National Geographic Bee. At the 31st annual GeoBee, Indian-American students made a clean sweep winning the top three awards and barring one, all the finalists were of Indian origin.
In second place was Atreya Mallanna, 12, of Massachusetts and the third place finisher was Rishi Kumar, 14, of Maryland. The winners were awarded one of three college scholarships totaling $40,000 at the end of an informative, ever-so-intense contest held at the National Geographic headquarters in downtown DC.
Nihar secured the top award of $25,000, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society, and an all-expenses-paid expedition to the Galapagos Islands aboard the National Geographic Endeavour II.
Nihar and Atreya were locked in a tie as they entered the championship round which featured five tie-breaker questions. The question which propelled Nihar to the top was: ‘More than one-third of Norway’s northern most county is located on what plateau’? His answer: ‘Finnmark Plateau’.
“I was going to say Hardanger Plateau, like Atreya”, Nihar confessed following the competition. “Then, I reasoned it out and said Finnmark and I got it right”, he told us breathing a sigh of relief.
Atreya and Rishi received $10,000 and $5,000, respectively. Following the preliminary rounds which were held on Monday, each of the top-ten-scoring students received $1,000 in cash.
Nihar, an eighth grader at Canyon Ridge Middle School in Austin was magnanimous about his fellow contestants: Atreya, in sixth grade at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington; and Rishi, in eighth grade at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City.
“Atreya is really strong”, Nihar told us. “I honestly thought he would beat me because we always used to do these mock bees. Rishi is really strong too”, he said noting that he participated in the 2016 GeoBee at the national level as a fifth grader. “He was actually leading yesterday in the semifinals. I honestly thought I would get third because they (Atreya and Rishi) are in my opinion stronger than me in geography. But, one question can decide it”, he said about the outcome.
As the youngest competitor to win the Spelling Bee, Nihar exuded a confidence far belying his 11 years. Flash forward to the 2019 GeoBee and he folds his hands in prayer and upon being pronounced the winner, touches the ground with his forehead as a mark of respect and gratitude. Were you nervous?, we asked.
He responded, “In this competition, I grew up. As a younger child scientifically, you have less fear. You want to go out and do things. As an older child, you have all these things you are worrying about. In the Spelling Bee, you just focus on the word and what you spell in your question. But, in the GeoBee, you have to focus on what the other person is answering to your same question”, he explained.
“I was in fifth grade and I honestly didn’t care what I got”, he said about the Spelling Bee. “This year, it’s my last year to compete in the GeoBee”.
Nihar made the transition from spelling to geography when he was in sixth grade. He made it to the top ten in his state geography bee and decided to pursue it further. His efforts paid off. Last year, he was among the top ten finalists in the GeoBee, and now he is the champion.
What do you like more: spelling or geography?, we queried. “It depends upon which aspect you take of the competition”, he replied diplomatically. Regarding preparation, he said, “I like spelling better because you can get that narrow, streamline feel instead of all these fields: physical, political, socio-economic. If you look at the competition itself, maybe geography because you have all this applied knowledge”.
“They are pretty much equal to me. If I had children, they would be my first two children: spelling and geography. I wouldn’t have named them that. I just love them equally”, he said with a smile.
And what now? Where do you go from here?, we wanted to know. Nihar already has his eyes on the US Brain Bee. He hopes to be a neurosurgeon when he grows up and believes participating in the Brain Bee will give him a head-start.
What do you do in your spare time when you aren’t studying?, we asked. “I play video games, football with my friends as well as other sports”, Nihar replied. “But, I couldn’t focus my efforts on sports because I had to study so hard for the geography bee. If I reach that level, I will have to give something up”. Well said! The competition is tough even as it is rewarding!
Since it began over three decades ago, the GeoBee has inspired 125 million students to learn about the world.
“You studied longitude and ‘harditude’ to get here”, quipped journalist-cum-humorist Mo Rocca who moderated both the semi-finals on Tuesday and finals held Wednesday. The competition he pointed out is not just about winning prizes, but “winning a better, more balanced planet for all of us”.
What was noticeably different this year is that there were two contests: the original GeoBee; and the newly launched, science-oriented GeoChallenge. The national championships of both competitions were held May 19-22.
The GeoBee is an academic competition that helps to improve student knowledge of geography, world cultures, physical features, history and earth science. It is tough and challenging, but also entertaining and very impressive!
The GeoChallenge empowers student teams to address a pressing issue facing the planet. The inaugural edition challenged students in grades five through eight nationwide to tackle plastic pollution in waterways.
Over 180 student teams participated in 16 regional GeoChallenge competitions and the winning teams headed to DC for the championship event. The Navigators of New York was awarded the grand prize of $25,000 for its device to clean the Hudson River. In second place was The Pioneers of Missouri awarded $10,000 for developing a device to prevent pollutants from entering storm water drains in St. Louis. The Bayou Protectors of Texas finished third and received $5,000 for utilizing a net to prevent debris from entering stormwater grates.
We asked Nihar what he thought about the new format. “I think it’s good because people who don’t want to strictly study maps and atlases have something else where they can focus on finding solutions”, he replied. “Mere memorization is not going to get you anywhere. I like how National Geographic is pursuing a state where we will eventually learn how to help our world because right now we are in a crisis”, he said mentioning the political, economic and agricultural spheres. “Everything is a crisis now”, he asserted.
“I know its very controversial and many students don’t like it”, he said about the GeoChallenge. “But, if we’re going to figure out the planet and how to fix it, it’s what we’ve got to do”, he added.
About extending the GeoBee competition over two days with ten and then three contestants, Nihar said, “It didn’t make much difference. I think I got some rest and that’s how I won”.
It is noteworthy that of the 54 state winners in grades four through eight who headed to the nation’s capital to participate in the 2019 GeoBee, some 21, nearly forty percent, were Indian-Americans, a community which makes up just one percent of the US population.
The 54 participants were selected from a pool of over 4,600 students and were winners of the National Geographic GeoBee State Competition. The original pool comprised over 2.5 million students of nearly 10,000 schools in all 50 US states, the District of Columbia, US Atlantic and Pacific territories, and Department of Defense Dependents Schools. The figures are staggering when one considers that out of this original pool of millions, only 54 kids competed in the national championship of the GeoBee, and ten advanced to the semi-finals of which nine were of Indian origin.
You came so far, we told Atreya adding, out of over two million students, you are in the top three. How does it feel, we asked. He responded, “It feels great. Out of all those students, I was able to make it this far”.
What was it like competing against Nihar and Rishi, we queried. “It was fun”, Atreya replied. “They are really nice. So, I had a great experience. I was kind of nervous, but I had more fun”.
We asked Atreya how did he prepare for the competition? “I mainly used two sources: atlas and the wikipedia”, he answered. “I studied a country on wikipedia and then looked at it on the atlas to see the major physical features and location of the major cities. I had to put in a lot of time studying”, he admitted.
What do you do when you are not studying, we queried. “I like reading, playing soccer and hanging out with my friends”, replied the 12-year-old.
Atreya’s favorite subjects in school are social studies and mathematics. We asked him what does geography mean to him? Pat came the reply: “Geography means the study of different places and cultures and how the world is inter-connected”.
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