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Boy, 10, is on top of world

Nathan Faust applies book smarts to make state geography bee
by: DENISE FARWELL, As one of five Portland Public Schools students headed to the state geography bee today, Nathan Faust says he might do a little studying beforehand. Then again, he might just play some basketball.

What's the largest oil-drilling nation in West Africa? How about the country where Mount Olympus is located?

If you don't know, Nathan Faust just might be smarter than you - in geography, anyway. (The answers are Nigeria and Greece, respectively.)

Ten-year-old Nathan, a spunky fourth-grader at Southeast Portland's Abernethy Elementary, is one of five students who'll represent Portland Public Schools in the annual Oregon Geography Bee, held today at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

The winner of the contest will move on to compete with other fourth- through eighth-graders in the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., set for May 22. The event is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, which developed the National Geographic Bee in 1989 in response to concern about the lack of geographic knowledge among children in the United States.

As for Nathan, he might have a lot of geography knowledge stored up, but it's not from any formal studying regimen or deliberate focus on the subject.

He says quizzing his mom and dad on geography questions with a world atlas nearby is a fun way to pass the time on road trips, like the one they recently took to Central Oregon.

Other than that, 'he just reads a lot,' says his dad, Mark Faust, who teaches engineering at Portland State University. 'I try to encourage him to do some training (in geography), but he's impervious to that.'

Nathan said earlier this week that he might browse through his geography study guides before today's event, but would much rather be playing basketball or soccer. Or reading, of course.

He claims to read around seven 'chapter books' each week, everything from National Geographic Kids magazine to the Harry Potter series and other fiction, mostly fantasy books.

Jacky Thompson, Atkinson's school librarian, says she sees a lot of kids who devour books on a regular basis. 'I have a group of children that come into the library every day after school to get books; the next day they turn them in and get new ones,' she says. 'One girl comes in and reads 11 Nancy Drew stories in two days.'

Thompson says Nathan outperformed 25 other students in the school's double-elimination geography quiz in January, which was open to all interested students in fourth grade and up.

He then had to qualify for the state bee by scoring among the top 100 on a written test, which Thompson reviewed.

'He astonished me,' she says.

Reading beats the screens

'The kids that read a lot are more sensitive, more aware, they listen intently to all kinds of stories,' she says, 'unlike some kids who seem to have grown up in front of a screen of some sort.'

Cindy Dulcich, who coordinates Atkinson's talented and gifted program, which Nathan is part of, says the school has focused on geography a lot in preparation for this year's bee.

The subject of geography is easily learned at this age, she says, when 'their brains are quite ready to soak up the information. … Once they get hooked, it helps get them thirsty for the news; it helps their citizenship; it makes them a global citizen.'

Of the 100 Oregon students participating in today's bee, 17 come from the city of Portland, five of them from Portland Public Schools. Besides Nathan, they are Moses Zarkin-Scott of Winterhaven School; Ian Michael of Sabin Elementary's Access program; Keraun Woods of Hosford Middle School; and Eric Cech of Robert Gray Middle School.

Portland sends few entries

Sheri Ruegsegger, who's coordinated the state bee for the past 19 years, says she has wondered why more Portland schools aren't represented, since nearly all of the schools in Salem, Eugene and smaller districts participate.

Of the 100 Oregon participants, she says Nathan is special because he's one of three fourth-graders; the others are in grades five through eight.

'It's amazing what these kids know,' Ruegsegger says. 'Once they see it isn't such a scary thing, I think they do OK.'