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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Where in the world... Where in the world... (May 18, 2005)

Young Palo Altan to compete in geography bee

by Alexandria Rocha

Peter Johnston was 4 years old when he memorized the street maps of Melbourne. His Palo Alto family had moved Down Under for three years in the mid-'90s, and Peter's savvy way knowledge of the local terrain helped his dad Lonn navigate the unfamiliar territory.

The now 13-year-old's early interest in geography has continued to pay off. Next week he'll represent California in the National Geographic Bee held in Washington, D.C., where he'll compete against 54 other contestants for three college scholarships from $10,000 to $25,000. A chance to meet Alex Trebek, who will host the final round, isn't bad either.

The Bee was started 17 years ago to promote geography education. Thousands of schools from all over the country, U.S. territories and the U.S. Department of Defense participate each year by holding small bees, in which one student emerges as the winner.

Each school champion then takes a written geography test and the top 100 scorers advance to their respective state competitions. Peter, who had won St. Simons school's bee once before but didn't make it to the state regional, took this year's win in stride.

At Sacramento's Cosumnes College, where the state event was held April 1, Peter beat out last year's champion, Ryland Lu, a seventh-grader from Los Angeles, who landed second place.

Questions covered a broad range of terrains and regions. At the state contest, a question Peter nailed was: "The Rhine River splits into many small channels before emptying out into the North Sea in what country? Although many students said Germany, Peter came out ahead with the Netherlands.

The National Geographic Society supplies the school- and state-level contests with materials, however, the students do not receive any study guides and have no idea what the questions will cover. The only certain topic is world geography.

To prepare, Peter studies about an hour each school night and six hours over the weekends.

"There's a ton to learn. It's indefinite," said Peter last week. "We got a nice atlas and my mom helps me by looking at the encyclopedias and the country descriptions."

Besides constant studying, Peter has another secret to his success. Instead of just memorizing names and locations of places, he's committed to learning their presidents, economies and cultures.

"If it was just memorization, you couldn't do it," he said. "But if you make it interesting, it's easier."

On Saturday, the entire Johnston family -- dad Lonn, mom Karen, twin sisters Erica and Lauren, 9, and of course, Peter -- will head to Washington D.C. Katie Wood, Peter's social studies teacher, will also join them.

Depending on how far a student advances, the Bee is held over two days, May 23-24. The format looks just like a spelling bee -- which Peter said he's never excelled at -- where each student stands to answer the question when prompted.

Peter's dad Lonn said the family has purposely avoided the documentary "Spellbound," which follows eight teenagers on their intense journeys to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

When it comes to the geography Bee, however, Lonn said the contestants' parents seem more nervous then the students.

"He's cool as a cucumber. His mom and dad were the nervous wrecks," he said, regarding the state regional.

For more information on the Bee, visit

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