- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Karan Menon knew his answer was right but wasn’t sure how to argue his case. Contestants in the National Geographic Bee aren’t instructed on challenging what they’re told is a wrong answer. He raised his hand and hoped host Soledad O’Brien would notice.

O’Brien called on him. Karan - a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Edison, New Jersey - explained that his answer was correct. The question: “The Mesabi Range contains a large deposit of what metal-bearing mineral?”

O’Brien was looking for was “iron ore.” Karan said “taconite,” which is a form of iron ore. After conferring for about five minutes, the judges gave him credit.

That point was just enough for Karan to avoid elimination and make the top three. He cruised from there, getting every championship-round question right to become the 27th National Geographic Bee champion on Wednesday.

“I knew this question,” he said. “I was 100 percent sure. I didn’t know why I had been marked wrong, so I decided to speak up for myself and challenge the question.”

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THE PREPARATION

Karan studied for eight hours a day after winning the New Jersey state bee. He also sought out a coach, Kumar Nandur, who worked with winners last year and in 2010.

But knowledge and memorization weren’t the keys to victory - Karan said it was about focus. He took deep breaths and meditated between questions.

“Everyone here is equal,” Karan said. “When it comes to the competition, you have to control your mind. You have to adapt to all this, like, millions of tons of pressure that’s coming on you.”

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WINNER’S HAUL

Karan won a $50,000 college scholarship, a lifetime National Geographic Society membership and a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Runner-up Shriya Yarlagadda, 11, of Grand Blanc, Michigan, received a $25,000 scholarship, and third-place finisher Sojas Wagle, 13, of Springdale, Arkansas, got a $10,000 scholarship.

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INDIAN JUGGERNAUT

Indian-American children have dominated both the National Geographic Bee and the Scripps National Spelling Bee in recent years. Karan and Shriya are both of Indian descent, and there was a laugh among parents and contestants when they got a question about a new state in India that was formed last year.

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NEW FORMAT

Contestants answered questions in a pretaped segment at the U.S. Botanic Garden, near the Capitol. The top three also were asked to assume the role of a hotel developer and make a 45-second argument about which of three cities - Beijing; Darjeeling, India; and Sapporo, Japan - would be best for a ski resort. Sapporo was correct, but Sojas made a strong argument in favor Beijing and was awarded four of six points.

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GOOD ENOUGH

In a question presented by musician Pharrell Williams, contestants were asked to identify a group of U.S.-administered islands 60 miles southeast of Kure Atoll. The answer: Midway Islands. “I wrote ‘Midway Islands,’ but I didn’t finish writing ‘Islands,’” said Nicholas Monahan, 12, of McCall, Idaho. He was given credit.

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CLOSE TO HOME

The first five rounds, with questions about U.S. geography, led to some surprising stumbles. Contestants couldn’t identify the second-largest city in South Dakota (Rapid City), the largest city in Wyoming (Cheyenne) and the largest port city in Georgia (Savannah).

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CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND

Some questions that decided the bee:

Q: Mariupol, a city located at the mouth of the Kalmius Rover, is located on what sea that is an arm of the Black Sea?

A: Sea of Azov.

Q: A Russian island that straddles 180 degrees longitude is one of the most biodiverse in the Arctic and is the world’s northernmost UNESCO World Heritage Site. Name this island.

A: Wrangel Island.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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