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Geography whiz finds herself back in the winner’s circle

Isabella Contolini is the 2011 National Geographic Geography Bee Colorado state champion. Photo: Chase Squires

It was a new year of competition but the same result for Isabella Contolini as the 7th grader bested all comers April 1 at the University of Denver to win the Colorado state title in the National Geographic Geography Bee.

Contolini, 13, of Lakewood, Colo., won the event last year and returned to Sturm Hall’s Davis Auditorium to emerge again from a field of 100 regional champions.

After advancing to the championship round against nine other challengers, she navigated a plethora of questions about the globe’s rivers, natural resources, international borders and even famous tunnels to win the state title. She won a trip to Washington, D.C., for a chance at the national title and a $25,000 scholarship.

Contolini says she studies geography up to four hours a day and, with no disrespect to the better-known National Spelling Bee, said, “I think geography is a lot more interesting and a lot more broad than spelling.”

After a series of grueling rounds where contestants had to interpret maps and answer questions about both the United States and the world, Contolini found herself in the head-to-head, single-elimination round against Pranit Nanda, an 11-year-old fifth grader from Aurora, Colo.

The two went back and forth until the final question: “Basra, which is connected to the northwestern end of the Persian Gulf by the Shatt al-Arab, is the principal port in what country?”

Contolini knew the answer: “Iraq.” Nanda couldn’t come up with it.

Hillary Hamann, a lecturer in DU’s geography department, helps organize the event, working with a team from the National Geographic Society. She says the field of geography continues to see breakthroughs and advances through technology as scientists study how humans interact with their environment.

“It’s really inspiring to see the next generation of students engage in the field and parade their knowledge of geography,” she said.

The annual event is run by the National Geographic Society, one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. The society was founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” It reaches more than 400 million people worldwide each month through its official journal — National Geographic — and other magazines, its television channel, documentaries, films books and more. 

The nationwide Geography Bee competition is sponsored by Google and by Plum Creek, the largest private landowner in the country with some 6.8 million acres of timberland in timber-producing regions of the U.S.

A sampling of questions:
Q. The city that served as New Zealand’s capital until 1865 is currently part of the country’s largest urban region. Name this city.
A. Auckland

Q. What country borders the Bering and Caspian seas?
A. Russia

Q. In 2010, which Asian country lost its ranking as the world’s second-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product, when it was surpassed by China?
A. Japan


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