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Heim Middle School student headed to National Geographic Bee

What’s the largest city on the island of Hispaniola? With the correct answer of “Santo Domingo,” Arnav Patra of Amherst won the New York National Geographic State Bee last month, competing in a field of 114.

The third time was the charm for the seventh-grader at Heim Middle School, who had made it as far as Albany in the previous two years.

Arnav pocketed a $100 prize and earned a ticket to the National Geographic Bee’s national championship, which will be held next week in Washington, D.C. The national champion wins a $50,000 college scholarship and an all-expenses-paid expedition for two to the Galapagos Islands, among other things.

Arnav has been a student of geography since he was a little boy, but there’s a special focus as the national championship approaches.

“In my room, I have this humongous map of the world – it’s floor to ceiling,” he said. “I constantly study that.”

He’s also been poring over the latest National Geographic atlas, which among the prizes in the state contest. “I have been studying important places around the world and current events,” he said.

Heather Krieger, a gifted and talented teacher in the Williamsville School District, has been coordinating the school bee for 11 years. She’s observed Arnav’s dedication since he first entered the competition as a fourth-grader.

“Arnav has a deep interest in geography and he has really trained himself – completely on his own,” Krieger said, noting that he also studies sample questions and quizzes posted on the National Geographic Bee’s website.

“The factual knowledge that you need to know is quite expansive,” Krieger said. “He’s like a sponge; he just absorbs it all.”

“He knows more about geography than I do,” Krieger said.

The national competition has a video requirement that’s factored into contestants’ scores in the preliminary round of the finals. They’re required to answer the questions: “You’ve been given a special power to solve one major problem that affects both your community and the world. What is the special power? What problem would you choose to solve? Why? How would you do it?”

Arnav took aim at the problem of invasive species – particularly cattails – in his two-minute video, which had to be submitted to judges in April.

“I gave myself the power to control fertility,” he said.

Krieger helped with the technical side of the production; Arnav’s father, Abani, accompanied him in the field.

“I drove him out to Glen Park and held the camera,” his father laughed. “Beyond putting a map on the wall when he was 3, my contribution is zero.”

“His mother works with him much more than I do,” Abani Patra said of his wife, Sipra, who quizzes Arnav and drives him to competitions.

Arnav identified several things that piqued his interest in geography.

“When I was a small kid, I traveled a lot,” he said, naming several western European countries and India as places he’s visited.

He also mentioned a puzzle map of the United States, a globe of the world and atlases that his mother bought him when he was in second grade.

He’s been participating in geography bees since second grade through the North South Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises money for impoverished students in India. He uses social media to keep in touch with friends he made at those competitions.

“It’s sort of a fun thing and I learn a lot from them,” Arnav said.

Five of those friends will be competitors in the field of 54 middle school-age students participating National Geographic Bee championship. Finalists represent the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Atlantic and Pacific territories, and Department of Defense Dependents Schools.

Since the National Geographic Bee was introduced in 1989, there’s never been a national champion from New York.

What does Arnav think of his chances?

“I can’t predict that – I’m no oracle,” he replied. “I’m just studying hard and hoping for the best.”

email: jhabuda@buffnews,com