Edgartown School student Jesse Herman knows his geography

Ralph Stewart

Jesse Herman knew the answer. “Japan,” the eighth-grader called out clearly on Tuesday morning in the gymnasium of the Edgartown School and became the 2010 winner of the school’s 22nd annual National Geographic Society geography bee.

Moments before giving his winning answer, Jesse and fifth-grader Daniel Gaines, finalists in the bee, sat at a long table in the center of the cavernous gym facing a moderator and three bee judges. Eight other semi-finalists, 300 to 400 fellow students and a host of nervous family members surrounded them.

Jesse answered this question asked by bee moderator Barbara Reynolds: what island nation is the world’s third-largest producer of nuclear energy, after the U.S. and France? Most grade-schoolers don’t know the answer. Most of their parents probably don’t either.

Then again, their parents haven’t spent two months boning up on states, countries, maps, customs, and culture. About 150 Edgartown school students, fourth to eighth graders, began the process in early November, according to bee coordinator and fifth-grade teacher Gary Smith.

Students were given old bee questions, atlases and other school reference tools to prepare for the initial seven rounds, held in each of the 10 classrooms over the past few weeks, Mr. Smith said.

Each classroom produces a winner who competed in the final round on Tuesday.

The school winner then has an opportunity to complete a written test in order to qualify as one of the top 100 geography students in the state. Each state winner is invited to Washington, D.C., in May for the national finals to compete for a $25,000 grand prize scholarship awarded by the National Geographic Society. Edgartown school eighth grader Conor Smith competed at the state level two years ago.

The competition is open to five grade levels, but preparation is more important than age, Mr. Smith said. “No question that the more time kids put in, the better their results will be. A fifth-grader won two years ago,” he said.

According to happy mom Laura Herman, Jesse’s love of geography helped him. “He’s always loved geography and maps, particularly subway maps – he’s always looking at them,” she said after the bee.

A relieved Jesse, who survived 11 rounds of competition and about 15 questions, said he was “happy to have finally won. No, I wasn’t scared … well, maybe a little.”

Contestants have every right to be anxious; this isn’t your grandfather’s geography, according to principal John Stevens. “This isn’t just about states and their capitals anymore. Students must be able to use maps, graphs and data,” he said, noting that bee questions this year dealt with suburban commuting time to major cities, a major Moscow thoroughfare, and the largest cotton exporter among southern Mediterranean countries.

Jesse received a certificate of championship, and his name will be engraved on a plaque with past winners hanging in the school lobby. He also received a large atlas as did each of the other finalists, including fourth-graders Kevin LaPlume and Emma Herrick; fifth-graders Anna Keenan and Daniel Gaines; sixth-graders Ethan Donovan and Ally Nelson; seventh-graders Hanna Kim and Abby Willoughby, and eighth-grader Anna Marques.

Classroom runners-up included fourth-graders Meghan Sawyer and Riley Craig; fifth-graders Lucy Enos and Cooper Rogers; sixth-graders Lee Hayman and Jared Livingston; seventh-graders Austin Fournier, Aubrey Ashmun, and Luke McCracken; and eighth-graders Caitlin Nichols and Neemias Carlos.

For Ms. Reynolds, who has moderated Island spelling bees for 15 years, this was her first geography bee as moderator. Judges were Pam Cassidy, Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, and Mike Lynch.

In addition to brainpower, the bee tested listening skills, written and oral skills, and the use of correct terminology. Indeed, some of the instructions might have daunted more experienced minds.

“You must use the correct name of a country. For example, the Dutch live in the Netherlands. They don’t live in Holland,” Ms. Reynolds explained. After she offered another example, that Australia is not called Oceania, its regional name, many in the audience looked at each other. Oceania?

As the kids filed out of the gym back to their classrooms, the thought occurred to this reporter that Jesse Herman was not the only winner on Tuesday. More than 150 kids now have a greater understanding of the big, wide world they will help steward in just a few years.

Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

Here are 10 geography questions from the 2008 list of questions used on the National Geographic Society geography bee for students in grades four through eight at the Edgartown School.

Go for it, you can’t do much worse than Jack Shea, our reporter at the bee. He only answered correctly three of the 10 questions asked.

1) The Snake River flows through Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in the United States, which lies on the border between Idaho and which other state?

2) What river forms the border between Nebraska and Iowa?

3) Which of North Carolina’s neighbors has the lowest unemployment rate?

4) Which present-day state did the Oregon Trail pass through – Wyoming or New Mexico?

5) Which state crosses more degrees of longitude – Tennessee or Indiana?

6) The Beaufort Sea and the Mosquito Coast are found along the coastline of which continent?

7) The Amazon River originates in the Andes Mountains on which continent?

8.) About half the population of South America lives in what country?

9) Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme court case that helped end racial discrimination in public schools, focused on a school in what city in eastern Kansas?

10) The skeletons of over 50 mammoths have been found near a town called Hot Springs. Hot Springs is near the Badlands in which state?