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It's all mapped out in his head

WATERCHASE- A teen will put his geography knowledge to the test at the National Geographic Bee.

By ELIZABETH MILLER
Published May 4, 2007


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Michael Aquilia and his father, Mike, have a knack for facts. You probably don't want to challenge them to a game of Trivial Pursuit.

"Geography is my best subject, " said the younger Aquilia, 14, from Waterchase.

Michael will get the chance to show just how much at the National Geographic Bee on May 22-23 in Washington, D.C., hosted by Alex Trebek.

The eighth-grader at Farnell Middle School qualified for the trip to Washington after winning the National Geographic Society's state contest in Jacksonville in March. He was the first Hillsborough County student to make it to the state finals, said Michael's mom, Kim.

"He's been interested in geography since elementary school, " she said. "He wants to be an architect, and knows about buildings all over the country."

The Aquilias said they discovered just how talented he is when they visited Las Vegas and Aquilia drew a detailed picture of the city's skyline from memory after seeing it just once.

"Michael's like me. If I really like something, I have almost a photographic memory, " his dad said. "He can remember the height of a building, who built it and the year it was built."

Said Kim: "He loves maps, trivia, the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel."

The teen has covered a good part of the globe with his family, including the Virgin Islands and Haiti, Los Angeles, the northern coast of Maine and Paris.

"My favorite place was probably Paris, seeing the way other people live, the food they eat, their culture, " Michael said.

Michael is also a member of the World Of Wisdom (W.O.W.) Club at Farnell under the guidance of eighth-grade teacher Gene Hazel. Kim credits Hazel for motivating the kids. The Farnell team recently won second place at the Jeopardy! quiz show-style Hillsborough County W.O.W. tournament at Hillsborough Community College.

"My teacher, Mr. Hazel, is really good, " Michael said. "He gives us a new set of questions to study every week, and you get awards and get recognized at the end of the year."

The National Geographic Bee starts with a handwritten test given to students in the fourth through eighth grades across the country. Of the average 1, 300 Farnell Middle School students who took the test, Michael received the fourth-best score when he was in the sixth grade. He finished first last year and this year, which qualified him to go to the state competition in Jacksonville.

Last year, Michael studied too hard and felt too nervous in Jacksonville, he said. This year his key to winning was to take it easy and just have fun.

"This time I didn't stress myself out, " Michael said.

But there were some tense moments. In the final round, eight out of the last 10 kids missed the first question. Would you know where Lake Winebago is? Fortunately, they could miss two before being eliminated, so Michael hung in there.

Another hazardous question: In which country do people eat feta cheese? Michael immediately thought Greece. But the clues of its bordering seas - the Black Sea to the north and the Aegean Sea to the south - made him realize the answer was Turkey.

The last question cinched the win for Michael. While his remaining two opponents were stumped, he knew that the Cantabrian Mountains were in Spain.

As the state winner, Michael received $100, a trophy, two atlases and other prizes. His expenses for the national championship will be fully paid by the National Geographic Society.

"I'm glad to win from Florida because it's a big state and there's a lot of odds against you, " Michael said.

The stakes will be even higher as he goes up against kids from all over the country in Washington. The top prize will be a $25, 000 scholarship, $15, 000 for second and $10, 000 for third.

"My goal will be to make the top 10, " Michael said. "It's going to be exciting. Hopefully, I'll make number one."

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 06:47:51]


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