Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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The winners of the National Geographic Geo Championships pose with their trophies at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 22. From left to right: The winners of the GeoChallenge, the "Navigators" team from Flushing, New York, fifth graders Alex Jun, Victor Jimenez, Jeremiah Pierre, and Natanel Rozic, and GeoBee Champion Nihar Janga, an eighth grader from Austin, Texas.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Inside the drama and excitement at the NatGeo Geo Championships

In this year’s contests, winners showed off their knowledge of the world—and their creative ideas for how to help it.

This week, over 100 young people gathered at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., to do mental battle at the 2019 Geo Championships.

The competitions, which climaxed on Wednesday afternoon, consisted of the National Geographic GeoBee, a geography-based bee that tests students’ knowledge of Earth, and the inaugural National Geographic GeoChallenge, where teams present projects that offer solutions to some aspect of the global plastic pollution problem.

In the GeoBee event, the two finalists stood quietly at their podiums at the front of a packed auditorium. Legs and hands jittering, they waited to hear the final question. Whoever answered it correctly would be the winner.

“More than one-third of Norway’s northernmost county is located on what plateau?” asked Mo Rocca, a comedian, self-proclaimed geography nerd, and the event's host.

They leaned over their black, plate-sized tablets, gripping neon pens. “Hardangervidda,” wrote Atreya Mallana, from Massachusetts. “The Finnmark Plateau,” wrote Nihar Janga, from Texas.

Janga fell to his knees and pounded the floor in excitement as he joined the ranks of winners of the GeoBee, an annual competition that's been around for over 30 years—more than twice as long as he has been alive. Janga is no stranger to success in the Bee world; last year, he made it to the finals of the GeoBee, and in 2016, he co-won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The GeoBee tests middle schoolers' knowledge of geography, the natural world, climate change impacts, and more. Over two million middle schoolers from more than 10,000 schools around the country studied, prepared, and competed in the early rounds of the competition. They trained hard, vying to answer whatever tricky questions the judges would throw their way.

One student from each state and the U.S. territories—54 in total—made it to the finals. Ten stood on stage in the semi-final round on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, there could only be one.

At the same time the GeoBee was taking place, 16 teams from around the country gathered at National Geographic to showcase the projects they'd developed as part of the GeoChallenge. The "Navigators," a team from Flushing, New York, took home the top prize for their design for a filtration device that would fit on the front of a boat and filter microplastics out of the Hudson River.

“We came up with our idea because we wanted to clean up the microplastics that are filling up the river,” said Natanel Rozic, a 10-year-old team member.

Now, with the $25,000 in prize money in hand, the team will go home and further develop their prototype into a fully functional tool.

A contest for the planet

Since 1988, over 120 million students have participated in the National Geographic GeoBee. The competition is designed to encourage young people to learn about the world around them—and the challenges the planet faces today. Questions at the semi-finals and finals, on Tuesday and Wednesday, dug into those themes. One set of questions asked the contestants to identify places that were actively working to adapt to climate change and other environmental challenges—from a city in Switzerland that’s aiming to reduce its carbon footprint to an island off Denmark that’s going trash-free.

The winner gets the glory, plus a $25,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galápagos Islands aboard the National Geographic Endeavour ll—a chance to see some of the places that came up during preparation for the competition. They’ll also be granted lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society. The runners-up receive college scholarships, of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively.

The GeoChallenge asked teams of middle schoolers to develop solutions to a major real-world problem: plastic pollution. Over a thousand teams across the country participated; 16 were invited to National Geographic headquarters for the finals.

Some, like team ‘No SACS in the Ocean” from Iowa, helped their school stop using plastic utensils in the cafeteria—saving up to 1,500 pieces of plastic from going into the trash each week. Others, like Washington’s “Vicious Nachos” team, figured out how to make shinguards for sports like soccer out of discarded plastic trash.

The three top teams that made it to the finals focused on developing practical tools that would collect plastic pollution in their local communities.

For Texas’s "Bayou Protectors" the problem is personal. “After Hurricane Harvey, there was plastic everywhere,” explains Mykayla McMillan, a member of the team. “It really showed how bad the problem was.”

The team designed a tool that could fit neatly into storm drains. Made out of simple, easily accessible materials like PVC pipe and netting, their “Trash Collector” prototype sits over the drain and collects any plastic that washes into it. Every so often, a volunteer can come by and remove the debris, they say—and by partnering with local community members who will “adopt” their own drain, they can stop more plastic from ending up in the rivers, waterways, and oceans.

The "Pioneers," from Missouri, presented a similar design to help clean up the River des Peres, which flows by their school. It’s so polluted that it’s been given nicknames like the River de Pew and the River of Despair.

“It’s just completely stuffed with trash,” says Dulce Brown, a team member.

But when they started to design their storm drain-covering tools, they found that not all drains were the same. To solve for that they designed their frame to be flexible to conditions at any given spot.

The final winners, the Navigators, tackled a slightly different side of the plastic problem: microplastics in the Hudson River. They designed a filtration system they call the Hudson Manta that attaches to a boat. The system sucks in water, filters out the plastic bits, and leaves any aquatic life behind unharmed.

But the work isn’t over for any of the teams. “We’re going to keep working on this no matter what,” says Naomi Irwin, a member of the Pioneers. “Because we want to solve the problem! We’ve been thinking about going on Shark Tank next.”