story & photo by Amy Bartelloni, Contributing Writer
Thursday, January 17, was more than just the start of a long weekend for ten Bellingham middle and high school students. It was the day of the second round of the school’s annual geography bee, to be held in the Bellingham Memorial School auditorium at 6:30 pm, and nerves were high.
All ten students who participated had made it through the bee’s first round, where a field of thirty-one had been whittled down to the top ten students. Seventh-grade teachers Geoffrey Favakeh and Robert Marzilli had organized and coordinated the events, with Favakeh serving as judge and Marzilli as moderator. To help the students get ready for the bee format, the teachers had held practice sessions after school leading up to the event.
“The practice sessions are focused on working with the students, reviewing previous years’ sessions, and giving them strategies,” Favakeh explained. “It gives them some experience of how it’s going to go and helps them prepare outside school.”
Seventh-grader Andrew Savage was both excited and nervous about the competition. “Geography is my favorite subject,” he said. He anticipated that the second event would be a little harder, but his mom, Meghan, was happy to be there.
“I’m just proud that he made it through the first round and got this far,” she said, a sentiment echoed by the staff and families who had come to cheer the students on.
Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Geography Bee is a national event, in which Bellingham has participated for over ten years. Seventh-grade world geography teacher Favakeh has facilitated the event in town for the last five years, with the help of fellow seventh-grade world geography teacher Marzilli.
Registration was open to grades four through eight, which presented an issue with the eighth grade being at the high school. Favakeh was sure to reach out to the high school, and had one eighth-grade participant, though most of the finalists were from seventh grade. Students from over 10,000 schools across the United States competed in this year’s bee.
“Each year the geo bee encourages millions of students to be curious and knowable global citizens,” Marzilli said in the evening’s opening. “Today we will determine our school champion, and that student will have the opportunity to advance to the next level of the competition.”
He reviewed the evening’s rules and format. The event consisted of the final round, to include all ten students, and a championship round with the top two finalists. Students were allowed to have questions repeated only twice and were allowed 15 seconds per question unless otherwise stated. Marzilli reminded the competitors to listen carefully and use the correct geographical terminology in their answers. If they answered two questions incorrectly, they were excused from the stage, until the competition came down to the top three participants: 7th-grader Jonathan Powell, 8th-grader Jamie Costello, and 7th-grader Nathaniel Smith, and competition was tight. Nathaniel placed third, so Jonathan and Jamie moved on to the championship round.
Questions included topics such as state capitals in the United States, world geography, and the participants’ ability to apply geographic knowledge to real-world scenarios (using maps). Some questions required oral answers, and some were written. In the interim between the final and championship rounds, Marzilli challenged the audience with difficult questions from the year’s former competitions, stumping the parents once about the term used for a narrow strip of land that connects two larger landmasses. (The answer was “isthmus.” Who knew!)
Seventh-grader Jonathan Powell was the evening’s winner, receiving a medal and a certificate. Jonathan had been inspired to sign up for the geo bee by his brother Ben, who had made it to the finals four years ago. Jonathan is now looking forward to the state qualifying test, where he’ll compete for cash and other prizes, including a trip to the National Championship in Washington DC. Mr. Favakeh anticipated results from the state qualifying test to be back within a month. According to the National Geographic website, state champions advance to the National Championship and compete for cash awards and college scholarships, including a $25,000 college scholarship, $1,000 in cash, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society, and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Although Jonathan is excited to move on to the state level, his mother, Jennifer Powell, was just grateful for the opportunity. “I’m really happy for him,” she said, thankful that his studying had paid off. “There aren’t a lot of towns that offer this, and we’re thankful for the opportunity.”