Geography bee lets students travel the world without leaving Corona del Mar school

Jason Zhang, left, Michelle Nguyen and Mason Nguyen, the first-, second- and third-place finishers in Lincoln Elementary School's geography bee, react to cheers from parents and staff on Wednesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Quick. Name the capitals of these countries: Albania. Bahrain. Cambodia. Chad. Uruguay. Panama. Qatar. Singapore. Kazakhstan.

If you know those, and 40 others, you’d be in Round 16 of the Lincoln Elementary School geography bee, and you’d be Jason Zhang.

Jason, 11, buzzed through all manner of Earth’s physical and political geography to take the crown in Wednesday’s bee at the Corona del Mar school.

Wakana Kiuchi places a sticker on a map during Wednesday's geography bee for fifth- and sixth-graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Corona del Mar.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Twenty-four fifth- and sixth-graders with quick minds and a keen sense of the world participated, and their breadth of knowledge was wide.

Still, Jason said it was pretty easy, the capital of Niger aside.

“Nothing,” the fifth-grader said when asked what was hard for him. “Although I missed one on countries and capitals. No big deal.”

With some tears and even more cheers, the students identified states and countries, rivers, mountains and deserts, iconic locations such as the Wailing Wall and the Louvre, ancient civilizations, sites of major Revolutionary War battles and more-obscure locations like the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica using oversize maps, verbal recall and photos projected on a screen.

State capitals were a skip in the park — really the multipurpose room — as one boy did when he remembered that Phoenix is Arizona’s capital.

Locating small European and Southeast Asian countries could be hard, and Caribbean island nations harder.

Integrating political science and history, the students looked at photos of senators and named their states. They identified major moments in time and said not only where or when they took place but also why they were important. For example, Dewey did not in fact defeat a beaming Truman in 1948. “The newspaper made a mistake,” a boy said.

As students tripped up, teacher, organizer and emcee Jon Pardoen consoled them with “Good try.” After two errors, they were out.

And that took awhile.

The capitals of the countries listed earlier, by the way, are Tirana, Manama, Phnom Penh, N’Djamena, Montevideo, Panama City, Doha, Singapore (it’s a city-state) and Nur-Sultan.

Jason knew all that (Niger’s capital came to him later — it’s Niamey). That was his favorite category. He likes competition. He attended every study session Pardoen held after releasing the study guide before Christmas.

Pardoen, who teaches special education at Lincoln, has held a geography bee since 2003 at whatever school he’s assigned to. He said he likes meeting students and families outside of his usual classroom.

This year’s bee went to record length. Pardoen was out of maps and was starting to run low on capitals.

Next year, he said, he might have to make it harder.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.