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Knowing their way around the world

March 16, 2009

HANCOCK - Where Sinaloa is located is not something most eighth grade students know, but if that student wants to go far in a geography bee, he or she had better know it's one of the Mexican states located on the Pacific coast between Sonora and Chihuahua.

Brian Kass may or may not know where Sinaloa is, but he knew where enough cities, countries and geographic features are on the planet to win the Hancock Middle School National Geographic magazine geography bee on Jan. 13.

Because of that win, he's going to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo on April 3 for the state competition.

Article Photos

Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette
Eighth-grade students Brian Kass of Hancock Middle School, left, and Grant Holmstrom from Chassell Township Schools, try to find a certain place on a globe in the Hancock Middle School library Friday. Both students will be taking part in the state National Geographic geography bee at Western Michigan University April 3.

Kass said his interest in geography goes back several years.

"(I've been interested) pretty much since I was little," he said. "I liked to read maps. I was a backseat driver."

The geographic bee is for fourth through eighth grade students, and Kass said he's been taking part since fourth grade, without the success he's having now.

"It's harder when you're younger," he said.

Kass said the geography bee double-elimination process starts in individual classrooms, where participants give oral answers to seven questions. The top 10 classroom contestants then competed in an all-school competition, which involves map reading and answering geographic questions.

"The number of rounds vary," he said. "There are hundreds of questions. If you keep answering questions right, it just keeps going."

Principal Monica Healy said the success of Kass vindicates the school's educational efforts.

"We're very proud of Brian," she said. "It shows (students are) learning here and they're retaining what they learn. They're not afraid to challenge themselves."

Healy said Kass first won the schools' classroom-level bee. He was one of 10 winners who competed in the schoolwide contest on Jan. 13. Then he had to take a written test from National Geographic to have the opportunity to be one of 100 students to compete in Kalamazoo.

Healy said Kass received support from his family in his studying for the geography bee.

"That speaks well of our families," she said.

Kass said he uses flash cards and reads maps to study for the bees, and he was told by the geography bee officials not to change his routine for the state competition.

"They told you just keep doing what you're doing," he said.

Kass is one of only three eighth-grade students, all boys, from the Upper Peninsula to make it to the state competition. One is from Menominee and the other is Grant Holmstrom from Chassell Township Schools, whom Kass has known for awhile.

"We've been friends since kindergarten," Kass said.

Like Kass, Holmstrom said he's also been interested in geography since childhood.

"I looked at globes and maps," he said.

He competed in the geographic bee in fourth grade, and in the fifth grade he went to the state competition, which at that time was conducted at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.

The 100 students who will take part in the state competition in Kalamazoo will present a strong challenge, Holmstrom said.

"They're good competitors," he said. "I don't think eighth graders always win."

Studying for the state competition is difficult, Holmstrom said, because of the uncertainty of what they will be asked.

"You always (have to) study the whole world," he said. "You never know what they're going to throw at you."

Holmstrom's father, Ted Holmstrom, who is also a geography teacher at Chassell Township Schools, said since 1995, the school has been competing in the geography bee, and 12 students have made it to the state competition in those 15 years.

Ted Holmstrom said in the state competition, if a competitor misses a question in the first round, there is another round for those students.

"If you miss one you may have another chance," he said.

The national competition this year will be in Washington, D.C. at National Geographic headquarters on May 19-20, and Ted Holmstrom said to get to an overall winner can be tough. One year, 72 questions had to be answered to get to a winner. Some national winners correctly answered every question put to them.

The national geographic bee winners gets a $25,000 college scholarship and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society.

Ted Holmstrom said he feels good about the chances that a student from Michigan will get to the final round in May, however.

"Michigan has more national champions than any other state," he said.

Kurt Hauglie can be reached at khauglie



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