The National Geographic World Championship takes place in Budapest, Hungary from July 10 - 15. Students from 21 countries are attending the competition, which tests their knowledge of physical, cultural and economic geography.
The United States is defending its championship title, with a team led by Andrew Wojtanik, 15, of Overland Park, Kansas. He won the 2004 National Geographic Bee in the United States, and he has also published a book, called Afghanistan to Zimbabwe: Country Facts that Helped Me Win the National Geographic Bee.
Andrew Wojtanik says his book grew out of his 3rd and final effort to win the National Geographic Bee, an annual geography competition that attracts more than 5 million young Americans each year, ranging from the 4th through the 8th grade. Faced with all that competition, he decided to compile a massive study guide, with factual details and maps for 192 countries around the world. "It included lots and lots of facts about the physical features, political features, environmental features, anything that could come up in the Geography Bee," Andrew says. "So a few months later, in August of last year, the National Geographic called up and said, 'Hey, do you want to have your book published?' And so I was like, 'Sure, I guess.' I was not expecting this to happen."
After 2 months of additional editing, Andrew's 380-page guide was published by the National Geographic Society. Arranged according to the letters of the English alphabet, the book offers information about everything from the mountain ranges of Afghanistan, to the ethnic groups of New Zealand, to the major exports of Zimbabwe.
Andrew says he compiled the guide in his free time, juggling school, track and baseball practice. "I have lots of atlases that I used, with lots of detail in them, and some other book resources to put the stuff together," he recalls. "Then I used the Internet for political stuff, like the economy, languages, religion and so on. And while I was making it, I was absorbing all this knowledge, which definitely helped me competing in the Bee, which I eventually won, due to this book."
His winning question? "Peshawar, a city in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, has had strategic importance for centuries due to its location near what historic pass?" Andrew says he considered that a rather easy question, but for those who do not, the answer is the Khyber Pass.
While winning a geography bee requires contestants to memorize lots of details about distant parts of the world, Andrew Wojtanik believes that is not the only reason to study geography. "You get to learn about how different other cultures in the world are," he explains, "and how we can't have stereotypes of these other places, we need to learn about what's going on. That's why geography is really important, and some people misunderstand it."
Andrew Wojtanik says he was around 5 or 6 when he first became interested in geography. "I got an atlas with a magazine subscription that my dad had ordered," he recalls, "and I was just intrigued by its detail and all the rivers and mountains and lakes, and I started wondering what it was like in all these other places, outside the United States. From there I went on to playing geography games, like, 'I'm thinking of a country that starts with the letter A,' and that eventually led to the Geographic Bee, which was in 6th grade, and then I took off from there."
In addition to the study guide, Andrew Wojtanik believes his unusually good memory helped him win the National Geographic Bee. "I can look at a map a couple times and have it go into my brain," he says, "but I don't know if there were any real good tricks, besides repetition of facts over and over again till they would eventually drill into my mind."
As for recent reports that Americans don't know nearly enough about geography, Andrew Wojtanik believes schools need to pay more attention to the subject. "Unfortunately, at least where I live, there are not really a whole lot of geography classes I can take in school," he says. "I got interested in 6th grade when we studied ancient civilizations, and did a little bit of geography, but other than that, in 7th and 8th grade and high school, there's not a lot of geography to do. There's no Geography 101 class, which I wish there was, of course. I think if we could start it at a young age, we'd get interested and start listening to the news. Then you say, 'Hey, I know what the capital of that country is. I know what it's like to live there now that I've studied geography.' That's how we can improve."
As he heads for the National Geographic World Championship in Budapest, Andrew Wojtanik says he is looking forward to seeing more of the world he has explored through maps and atlases. Except for a visit to neighboring Canada, this will be his first trip outside the United States.