Boy's love of cultures makes him geography bee champ

  • Glen Crest Middle School eighth-grader Dan Pechi regularly reads atlases and studies maps. A three-time National Geography Bee winner at his school, Dan expects to compete in the state bee for the third year in a row.

    Glen Crest Middle School eighth-grader Dan Pechi regularly reads atlases and studies maps. A three-time National Geography Bee winner at his school, Dan expects to compete in the state bee for the third year in a row. Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/25/2011 10:56 PM

Eighth-grader Dan Pechi can tell you that there's a Vanderbilt mansion on Rhode Island and a national monument near Pueblo, Colo.

Dan knows this because those were two of the few questions he's ever missed during the three years he's participated in the National Geographic Society's National Geography Bee.

 

The 13-year-old Glen Crest Middle School student recently earned his school's championship for the third year in a row, setting a record at the Glen Ellyn school. The hotly contested bee took Dan and the other nine finalists 13 rounds of questions before he was declared the winner and a candidate for the state geography bee.

Dan credited sixth-grader Billy Powers, who came in second, with giving him a run for the championship title.

"I really commend him," Dan said. "I have never really experienced that sort of competitiveness with someone else in the geography bee."

Dan already has taken the written exam to qualify for the state bee on April 1 and, although he hasn't received the results yet, is confident he will be in it as he has been the two previous years.

At the state level, he'd be up against 99 other kids from around Illinois battling for the chance to go to the national competition in Washington, D.C., May 24 and 25. First prize at national is a $25,000 college scholarship.

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Fascinated by culture

But geography is about a lot more than winning for Dan, who loves to travel and experience other cultures.

"To truly excel in something, you have to be interested and motivated," he said. "That motivation shouldn't be just to win. To me, it's just enjoying geography and learning more."

Dan said his appetite for geography has been whetted by what he has learned about the world in school and trips he has taken with his family. He spent three weeks in China when he and his younger brother, David, went with their parents to adopt their now 5-year-old sister, Julia. Dan recalled seeing the Great Wall of China and touring Guangzhou, China's third largest city, where they picked up his sister.

"We really got to get around and see tons of things. The culture was amazing," he said.

Then, Dan's globe-trotting grandparents took him to Morocco when he was 11. He chose the destination on the northwest coast of Africa.

"I understood it had been influenced by multiple cultures," including Spanish, French, Arabic and nomadic Berber people, he said.

His mother taught him some French before he left and Dan picked up a few dozen Arabic words while he was there. In a mountain village, he played with Berber children, who took him on a tour of their town.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It was so special to get along with someone who you don't have any idea who they are at all, yet to have a connection with them," he said.

His mother, Carole Laude Pechi, said Dan is simply fascinated by other cultures.

"He'll eat anything, try anything," she said.

Pat Doyle, Dan's social studies teacher at Glen Crest, said the school has participated in the National Geography Bee for many years. The national organizers send questions that the school uses to make up a written test for the students and the top 10 scorers face off in the bee. The bee focuses primarily on the United States, but world geography questions are included, Doyle said.

"Some are very difficult," he said.

Dan said the bee is more challenging because students need to use what they know to figure out the right answers, rather than just memorize facts. For example, a sample question on the National Geographic website asks on which major European river delta the port of Rotterdam is built.

Students need to know that Rotterdam is in the Netherlands, a country that lies in northwestern Europe along the Atlantic Ocean. They then need to picture what rivers flow through that part of Europe into the Atlantic to come up with the correct answer, the Rhine River.

"What most people tend to go for are spelling bees, but there's so much more in geography. It's not simply what is the capital of this," Dan said.

Dan admits he gets very nervous at geography bees, but says he tries not to show it. He picks out areas he thinks he needs to focus on, such as national parks or major rivers, and puts in several hours of intensive study before the bee.

But most of the time, Dan said, he adds to his knowledge of geography by picking up on information and reading more about subjects that interest him.

"He spends a lot of time looking at maps and atlases," said his dad, Tony Pechi, "He's very self-motivated."

Looking ahead

Dan doesn't just spend his time studying maps and reading about other cultures, though. A straight-A student, he said his favorite subject is a tie between social studies, math and biology. He is a member of the Glen Crest Math Team that recently took first place in a competition at St. Francis High School in Wheaton.

Dan has set his sights on gaining admission to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a college preparatory school for gifted students in Aurora, and is working on his application.

"It's much more than a college application," he said.

Providing he gains admission, Dan said, he would like to spend next year at Glenbard South High School with classmates he's known all his life and enter IMSA as a sophomore. His ultimate goal is to enroll in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to prepare for a career in bioengineering.

"He's one motivated kid," said his mother. "We couldn't be more proud of him."

Dan, who has had the opportunity to attend extended education programs at area colleges, doesn't spend all his time hitting the books, however. He said he likes to hang out with his friends and play lacrosse.

Not surprisingly, he would like to travel more, too.

"It's probably what relaxes me most is seeing other places," he said.

One place he would like to visit is Socotra, an island in the Indian Ocean belonging to the nation of Yemen. Like other remote habitats, Socotra has flora and fauna all of its own that he would like to see, Dan said.

"They've been isolated so long, there are things there that exist nowhere else," he said.

But right now, Dan has his eyes set on a more immediate goal.

"I look forward to the state geography bee," he said.