Four Canadian students proved they’re among the top young geographers in the world this week, walking away with a medal each following five days of tough competition at the 17th International Geography Olympiad (iGeo).
Team Canada members Akib Shamsuddin and Nikita Serikov earned silver medals, while Ryan Sharpe and Matthew Woodward earned bronze medals. Medals are awarded for overall performance in the competition based on scores in each of three rounds of testing. Canada finished 14th overall among 46 countries. Team leader Paul VanZant said he was proud of the students’ performance, especially given that the virtual format added layers of complexity to the testing rounds.
“Certainly, if we’d had a choice between doing this virtually or attending in person, I think we’d take the latter, but the kids handled it really well,” he said. “After a year and half of online school, they caught on pretty quickly, and iGeo did a good job of making the technology accessible ahead of time so they could test it out.”
This year’s iGeo was supposed to take place in Istanbul, Turkey, but continued uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the in-person events. VanZant commended the organizing committee for pivoting quickly to a virtual format so the competition could go ahead.
Just preparing for the competition was a challenge, with VanZant and the students scattered across Ontario and co-team leader Janet Ruest based in British Columbia. The group met weekly on Google Meet in the leadup to the competition, and the students each put in work on their own time. “This group of four really worked together well,” said VanZant. “They were in constant communication between meetings, practicing their poster presentation, quizzing each other. They put a tremendous number of hours in.”
Several former Team Canada members also did their part to help prepare this year’s team. Locked down at university or at home this past winter with little else to do, Ben Woodward, Jack Cheng, Jerry Sun, Andrew Ding and Malhaar Moharir got together and organized weekly virtual geography workshops. The workshops, which touched on a variety of subjects including basic geographic skills, fieldwork skills, and human versus physical geography, were open to any Canadian student. “It’s a testament to these kids and their passion,” said VanZant. “They’ve all taken it to the next level in terms of their post-secondary experience.”
Next year’s iGeo is set to take place in Paris, France. Four students are chosen to represent Canada from among hundreds of applicants following extensive testing. Many Team Canada alumni are past winners and finalists of the Canadian Geographic Challenge, a national geography competition for students in Grades 4-10. For more information on the Challenge and iGeo and key dates for 2021-22, visit the Challenge website.
“I hope that the pandemic situation improves so we can all meet face to face in Paris next year, because it’s just such a tremendous experience for the students,” said VanZant.