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2 high school seniors set sights on final leg of travel quiz

Robert Niles and Joseph Stromberg, two Williamsville School District high school seniors, are going places with their superior knowledge of U.S. and international geography.

The first destination for both was the New York finals in the Automobile Association of America High School Travel Challenge last week. Results of the finals are still being tabulated.

From there, each hopes to advance to the national contest in May to compete with geography geniuses from around the country for more than $100,000 in prizes, including a trip to Orlando, Fla.

If either makes it -- Robert, who attends Williamsville East High School and Joseph, a student at Williamsville North -- it wouldn't be the first such trek for a Williamsville school senior.

Michael Oh, a 2005 Williamsville East graduate, beat them to it by winning the whole shebang in last year's AAA High School Travel Challenge. In fact, Robert, who is a friend of Michael's, said Michael's success encouraged him to take on the challenge this year.

"It didn't seem like a bad idea," said Robert, 17, of the initial online trivia test in which he, Joseph and three other New York State high school seniors outscored thousands of other challengers.

"I've always liked geography," he added.

Joseph, who was persuaded to take the test by his teacher for Advanced Placement government, was similarly intrigued by the subject. "I thought it would be easy, because there was no essay [involved]. I know quite a bit about this anyway, and I always liked to look at maps," said Joseph, 17.

The Travel Challenge would seem to be a contest that is tailor-made for those who are trivia-minded and who have a curiosity about the world around them.

"We're trying to encourage kids to consider careers in the travel industry and have knowledge of geography to create an awareness of the travel and tourism industry," said Diana Dibble, public affairs manager for the AAA of Western and Central New York. The contest "is in its fourth year, and it's grown every year. So, looking at the fact that we had 64,000 registrants last year, it's safe to say we had more this year," Dibble added.

Superintendent Howard S. Smith credits the quality of the teachers in the Williamsville School District for consistently churning out stellar students. In addition, Smith said, teachers in the district are committed to infusing geography into the lessons.

"As learning becomes more global . . . it's critical that students become more informed about geography," Smith said.

Joseph, who hopes to study sociology and anthropology at either Brown University in Providence, R.I., or Washington University in St. Louis, said he thrives in a competitive environment, and his penchant for trivia seems to run in the family. His sister, Joanne, was a contestant on the TV game show "Jeopardy" that aired Feb. 1 and 2.

Robert, who absorbed much of his knowledge about geography and travel "by watching the Travel Channel a lot and reading whatever I can," prepared for the 40-question, proctored exam that he and Robert took to advance to the national contest by having his younger brother quiz him on where the world's major airports are located and famous travel destinations.

"I'm just hoping I do well enough to make it to the next round," he said.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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