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Midvale geography bee champ prepping younger brother

SANDY — For the past several years, the geography game in Utah has been dominated by Anthony Cheng.

The Midvale Middle School ninth-grader was the first student in the 25-year history of the National Geographic Bee to make it into the national finals three times, finishing fourth in 2012, fifth in 2011 and sixth in 2010.

But Anthony is too old to compete this year, leaving room for a new Utah geography champion to emerge. On Friday, roughly 100 Utah students will compete at Thanksgiving Point for a shot at the national competition next month in Washington, D.C.

Among this year's competitors are several returning participants, including Anthony's brother, Alex Cheng, a sixth-grade student at Peruvian Park Elementary.

"I'm just going to try to do my best, try my hardest," Alex said.

Sheila Keller-Powell, who has served as state-level coordinator of the bee since its creation 25 years ago, described Anthony's achievements at the competition as "phenomenal." And she called Alex, who participated for the first time last year as a fifth-grader, an outstanding student and gifted pianist.

"I can’t imagine what their dinner table must be like," Keller-Powell said. "They must practice every night."

Alex said he has spent between 30 minutes and a hour studying each day in preparation for the competition. His parents, Wendy Lu and Albert Cheng, said they will occasionally quiz their sons and help with practice questions for the bee, but for the most part, both boys are self-motivated to study.

"This is a long journey," Lu said of the competition. "You can't just do it for the last few weeks."

Cheng and Lu have attended each of their sons' competitions, including Anthony's three contests in Washington, D.C. Cheng said he gets anxious watching his boys compete, an effect that has not lessened with time.

"Each year it seems I'm more nervous than the previous year," he said. "(It) becomes so competitive."

Should Alex — or any Utah student — take the top prize in Washington, D.C., next month, he'll receive a $25,000 scholarship and an all-expense paid trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Alex said he doesn't feel a lot of pressure to fill his brother's shoes — he's more interested in mathematics than geography, he admits — but it would still be exciting to become Utah's first National Geographic Bee champion.

"I think I'm pretty good on the Western United States, the cities," he said. "I'm sort of nervous about physical geography."

In addition to being the 25th anniversary of the competition, this year's National Geographic Bee will be the final outing for longtime moderator Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!" and for several behind-the-scenes coordinators, including Keller-Powell.

"I’d like to go on longer, but there’s a whole bunch of us who are reaching the age where it’s getting to be a lot of work," she said.

Keller-Powell, who worked for 30 years as an elementary school teacher before retiring in 2006, has helped steer the competition through several challenges, from venue changes to a bomb scare in the early 1990s that saw an innocuous box of National Geographic magazines detonated by police while students waited outside.

"I think that was the craziest thing that ever happened," she said. "I will never forget that."

Keller-Powell also continued working despite her own health challenges, including a bout with cancer and, more recently, Parkinson's disease. In 2006, she said she had to beg her oncologist to postpone a chemotherapy treatment until after the competition.

"As soon as the bee was over, my husband literally whisked me away to my next chemo," Keller-Powell said. "That was the worst one. That was the hardest, but I survived it."

Ross Rogers, a co-coordinator of the state-level competition, said the geography bee is an opportunity for students to study and be recognized for an important subject that is too often overlooked.

Educators and policymakers often debate the need for greater investment in the arts or in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively referred to as STEM. But geography, Rogers said, teaches students about the world around them, and while it's not directly tested in assessments such as the ACT, it relates to all other subjects.

"It gives students an opportunity to thrive in a different curriculum that doesn’t get a lot of attention in Utah," he said.

Keller-Powell said the geography bee has changed over the years, from tweaks in the rules to a greater representation of female students. She said the bee has always been "boy-heavy," but this year, roughly a quarter of the state-level competitors are girls.

She's also absorbed some of the geography trivia over time during the competition.

"I’ve learned a lot from it over the years," Keller-Powell said. "Do I know what these kids know? Heaven's sakes, no."

Anthony said his favorite part of the competition was the different people he was able to meet at both the state and national level.

"At the national competition, it’s really awesome because they’re all really intelligent people, and they all have really great ideas and perspectives on things," he said.

The final round of the national contest will be held May 23 in Washington, D.C. It will be broadcast on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD, as well as being aired after the competition on public television stations.