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Okinawa Student Competes in National Geographic Bee

By Amaani Lyle

American Forces Press Service
Washington, DC | May 23, 2014

Patrick Lewallen competes in last year's National Geographic Bee Preliminary Rounds.
Patrick Lewallen competes in last year's National Geographic Bee Preliminary Rounds. | Photo: Christy Solberg/National Geographic

Many adults struggle to recall the names of all 50 states, and even on a short trip, would be lost without their global positioning systems.

But Patrick Lewallen placed 33rd among 54 finalists who won their state-level geography bees and bested nearly 4 million fifth-through-eighth graders to secure their place during the 26th annual National Geographic Bee held here May 19-21.

Representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Atlantic Territories, Pacific Territories and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools, participants ranged in age from 11 to 15 as they competed for the 2014 spelling crown and three college scholarships, provided by this year’s sponsor, Google.

“I’ve had an interest in geography when I was young and got curious about the National Geographic Bee when I was in third grade,” Patrick said.

In 1989, the National Geographic Society developed the National Geographic Bee in response to concern about the lack of geographic knowledge among young people in the United States.

Patrick, a 14-year-old Ryukyu Middle School student, lives in Okinawa, Japan, where his father, Marine Corps Col. Stephen Lewallen, is the commander of Camp Hansen.

Lewallen recounted how his support of overseas contingency operations in the recent years influenced his son’s burgeoning interest in geography.

“As I would travel around, my wife Wendy would put pins on a map in the garage and she would show him where daddy was and that’s really how it started,” the colonel said. “It grew from there and they started doing quizzes on globes and my wife started buying [geography] books.”

So when the family arrived to Okinawa five years ago, Lewallen said both of his sons started competing in the National Geography Bee, and for the past two years Patrick has been at the national level.

Patrick, a geography whiz, revealed some of his methods in keeping his world trivia skills sharp, through tools like Wikipedia and a National Geographic A to Z Geo-Scavenger hunt book that help him study.

“[The book] tells you basic things like capitals, major rivers, cities, plateaus, valleys and other details,” he said.

But he acknowledges that many details that emerge in competition questions are significantly more obscure. Knowing, for example, the origin of the confection marzipan isn’t exactly made easy by simply cracking open a geography book.

“You have to look in-depth, look at the culture of different places and you also have to know a bit about the city,” Patrick said, reminding himself that the confection is most frequently used in Palermo, not Naples.

His advice to aspiring geography prodigies is simple. “Try and stay dedicated, and don’t study it just for scholarships; you really have to have a passion for it.”

Moderated by broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien, the bee airs tonight at 7 p.m. on the National Geographic channel; check local listings.

Grand prize winner Akhil Rekulapelli, a Virginia eighth-grader, earned a $50,000 scholarship, a trip with his family to the Galapagos Islands and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society.

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @lyleAFPS)

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