A team of 16-year-olds from Russia won the National Geographic World Championship geography bee Wednesday at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
The Russians beat out teams from Canada and Chinese Taipei in the finals. The United States' team finished in fourth place and failed to qualify for the finals after competing in a hands-on orienteering contest, which tested their navigational skills using a map and compass at the San Francisco Zoo Monday. Teams from 17 countries compete in the biannual contest, and the first, second, and third place finishers receive medals in an Olympics-style ceremony.
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Mary Lee Elden, director of the National Geographic Bee, says the event is a chance for students who excel in geography to get to know one another.
"The purpose of the contest is to get these kids together from all around the world who love geography and introduce them," she says. The three U.S. team members—Pranav Bhandarkar from Georgia, Stefan Petrovic from Kansas, and Anthony Cheng from Utah—spent time studying every night over the past several months while video conferencing on Skype.
The U.S. team was randomly selected from the top finishers at the past two years' national geography bees. More than 4 million students compete annually in the bee.
Elden says she hopes the students' success will help bring more publicity to geography, a subject she says is largely ignored in U.S. high schools. High school seniors' scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress geography test remained static between 2001 and 2010.
"I hope younger students will see these kids as role models," she says. "They might inspire kids to know more."
Contestants were asked to do more than just locate countries and capitals on a map. Physical geography and cultural geography are topics among the sample questions on the National Geographic website.
Still, Elden says being able to identify important physical landmarks and locate countries remain the building blocks of geography.
"Knowing rivers and lakes, that's important—it's like the alphabet for writing. You can't write without the alphabet, and you can't do advanced math without knowing how to add," she says. "You've got to learn the basics."
The teams in the finals weren't the only ones faced with challenges over the past few days. The final round was moderated by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who was forced to use crutches after rupturing his Achilles tendon while chasing a burglar in his hotel the night before.