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Downey students tackle GeoBee

“Iqaluit, which means ‘place of fish,’ is the biggest community on the largest island in the Arctic Archipelago. Name this island.”

That’s a question from last year’s National Geographic GeoBee, an annual competition of fourth through eighth grade students from nearly 10,000 schools across the country. While the ultimate prizes include college scholarships and cash, Downey Elementary School administrators and teachers say the benefits throughout the process are just as important.

“It inspires students to build awareness and curiosity about the world around them,” said Chrissy Leahy, fourth grade teacher. “Our students learned about the existence of new places that many had never heard of before.”

Fifth grade teacher Karen Carbone added, “It gives students a chance to shine in an area that we don't necessarily get to spend a lot of time learning about within our curriculum.”

Both teachers commented on the camaraderie they witnessed.

“I observed students cheering one another on, congratulating each other and patting each other on the back. Our students were genuinely happy for the success of their classmates,” said Leahy.

“During the whole-school round, I saw one of the fourth grade students, who had been eliminated, rejoin his class,” Carbone shared. “When his classmate answered correctly in the next round, he was cheering louder than anyone.”

Downey fifth-grader Vedanth Iyengar, who won this year’s GeoBee.

Downey fifth-grader Vedanth Iyengar, who won this year’s GeoBee.

Principal Debra Gallagher said the bee also generates new academic gateways. “Some of our students are so interested in the geography of the world. There’s such curiosity there. For others, it’s about global awareness. There are so many places they don’t know about. It creates a lot of teachable moments.”

This year — the second time around for Downey — about 80 students took part in the school competition. In each of the Grade 4 and 5 classrooms, students had 15 seconds to answer questions in a series of rounds, earning points for every correct answer. The two students in each classroom with the most points emerged as the school’s eight semi-finalists.

The next phase took place in front of all fourth and fifth graders. The eight competitors sat on the cafeteria stage holding small whiteboards. As questions were asked, the students wrote their answers on the boards and revealed them simultaneously until just two students remained. The two finalists competed in the same way for the title of school champion.

Downey’s 2019 school champion is fifth grader Vedanth Iyengar, not coincidentally a semi-finalist from Leahy’s fourth grade classroom last year.

“When I stepped on the stage and answered my first question, I was nervous and afraid that I would get something wrong, but as the competition kept moving on, I felt more confident,” Vedanth said. “My favorite part was when I got in the final two and knew the answers to both the questions that were asked.”

Vedanth’s parents, Vinay and Suman, said they are thrilled. “He has been fascinated with geography since age five, so we are grateful to the school district and Mrs. Gallagher for this opportunity,” said Vinay. “He has a long road ahead, but becoming school champion is a step in the right direction. His hard work is paying off!”

Vedanth has already taken the State GeoBee qualifying test, but has to wait until results are announced to find out if he’s in. Last year’s Downey school champ, Nate Feinfeld, qualified and went to the state bee.

“It was really fun to be one of the top 100 geographers in the state. I liked the fact that after the preliminary rounds, they had a giant inflatable globe that you could go inside,” Nate shared.

“We were so proud to watch Nate have a chance to show off his lifelong love of maps, first at the Downey and then at the State Geo Bee,” said Nate’s father, Michael Fein. “It’s hard to imagine a time when it was more important for young people to learn about the interconnectedness of the world.”

Gallagher said the school plans to take part in the GeoBee again next year. “The teachers and students love it,” she said. “It’s fascinating and impressive what the students know. They’re brilliant!”

(By the way, the answer to that opening question is Baffin Island. But, of course, you knew that. Or maybe a nearby fourth or fifth grader did.)

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