Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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Rishi Nair (center, in black shirt) is this year's National Geographic Bee winner, after a tough competition.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

12-Year-Old Wins Geographic Bee in Nail-Biter—How Would You Do?

Students demonstrate an impressive command of maps and world affairs in thrilling competition.

Which East African lake that drains into the Ruzizi River contains large quantities of dissolved methane gas that could generate electricity for millions of people?

After answering that question correctly (Lake Kivu, duh), Rishi Nair, a 12-year-old from Florida, was crowned winner of the 28th National Geographic Bee. Nair bested nine other finalists in a game show format competition hosted at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. 

The competition is open to grades four through eight, and the finalists ranged in age from 10 to 14 years old. This year's bee began with a field of two and a half million contestants from 11,000 schools across the U.S.  

"These kids aren't just smart, they care about the world," journalist and humorist Mo Rocca—who hosted the competition for the first time this year—told the capacity crowd at National Geographic.

For winning, Nair scored a $50,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society, and an all-expenses-paid trip for two to southeast Alaska. Hosted on the Lindblad Expeditions ship National Geographic Sea Lion, the trip was designed to recognize the hundredth anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service and includes a stop in scenic Glacier Bay National Park.

See how well you would do at a National Geographic Bee with these questions from last year:

In addition, Nair's parents have promised him a new iPhone, a trip to Switzerland (he's been learning German), and a golden retriever puppy.

"I'd like to thank my mom for [helping me prepare] and for everything she's done since I was born," Nair said after his big win. "I love you, mom," he said, before biting his medal.

The bee was founded in 1989 to improve geographic literacy among students. "Geography is about more than places on our map, it's about the interconnection of our world," said National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell before the final rounds began. He pointed to a recent survey that found three of four American eighth graders lack basic proficiency in the subject.

Watch: The thrilling final question of the bee.

But not these kids. They nailed questions on Poland's currency (zloty), the official religion of Mauritania (Islam), and the biggest city on Prince William Sound (Valdez).

Fourteen-year-old Saketh Jonnalagadda from Massachusetts secured second place and a $25,000 scholarship. He said he felt "awesome" during the competition and not at all nervous. In third place, with a $10,000 scholarship prize, was Kapil Nathan, a sixth grader from Alabama. 

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Rishi Nair is overjoyed when he clinches the title.

The tense final rounds included several lead changes and a successful challenge by Grace Rembert of Montana, who was awarded a point for answering Baja when the judges wanted Baja California. You can see the action yourself on the National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, May 27. (Read about last year's competition.)

Seventeen of the 54 finalists competing this week had made it to the national competition in past years. One, Mika Ishii of Hawaii, competed at the national level for the fourth time. Rembert competed for her third time. 

After the students' impressive first round, on U.S. geography, Rocca said, "That is how you bee." He added, "If this were a grammar bee I would be fired for saying that, but it's not."

Lucas Eggers, who competed in the finals from Minnesota, said he refers to himself as a geonerd. "I see that as indistinguishable from a geogeek," he quipped.   

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Mo Rocca, right, hosted a lively competition among the 10 finalists.

In addition to those previously mentioned, the other finalists this year included Rishi Kumar from Maryland, Samanyu Dixit from North Carolina, Ashwin Sivakumar from Oregon (pronounced to rhyme with gin, not Bonn, he noted), Pranay Varada from Texas, and Thomas Wright from Wisconsin. Many more students will compete in future years; Alex Trebek, who hosted the National Geographic Bee for 25 years, recently endowed the program to keep it going in perpetuity.

Test your own geography knowledge with the quiz on this page, the GeoBee Challenge online, or through the National Geographic GeoBee Challenge app.

Watch the competition on the National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, May 27.

Brian Clark Howard won the most recent National Geographic Staff Bee, answering the final question correctly on Namibia's Walvis Bay. Follow him on Twitter andGoogle+.