(Editor’s note: A previous edition of this story incorrectly identified Lake Victoria in Luganda, also known as Ganda. Lake Victoria is located in Tanzania and Uganda.)
Henry Jensen creates maps in his head while on the playground, walking down the street, even as he drifts to sleep. At first, he invented imaginary places and drew them. As he got older, he built maps of real locations, too.
“I started off drawing fictional maps,” 10-year-old Jensen explained, places he made up or heard about in a story or movie. Nowadays, he carries mental maps of various regions of the United States as well as the world, in his mind. To inspire curious and geographically inclined children such as Jensen, National Geographic has been organizing geography competitions, or bees, since the 80s. These contests are specifically addressed toward fourth-through-eighth graders.
New Friday Harbor fifth grade teacher Dave Pippen, who had been aware of National Geographic’s contest for years, organized and registered Friday Harbor Elementary and Middle School to qualify for the bee. Ten students, including Jensen, entered.
“I love geography,” Jensen said when asked why he was interested in the competition.
The group was primarily sixth graders. Although one of the youngest of the competitors, Jensen, proved to be a formidable opponent, becoming the Friday Harbor Elementary and Middle School champion. This made Jensen’s next step, competing at the state level, possible. First, according to Pippen, he had to show he was qualified by passing a test.
Jensen prepared at home using study books provided by National Geographic. He was surprised by some of the facts he discovered. For example, the smallest country, Vatican City, in Italy, is only about 0.17 square miles with a population of approximately 800 people. Jensen also learned the importance of his mental maps, which assist him in visualizing faraway places.
With this new knowledge and maps in his mind, Jensen was able to ace the test.
Jensen excitedly headed to Tacoma, Washington with his family Friday, April 6, where he competed against over 100 students from across the state.
A middle-school student from Sammamish won the Washington state division and will compete at the national bee in Washington, D.C., in May.
Despite not qualifying for nationals Jensen got to experience a high-stakes bee. Getting up in front of a large crowd did not phase him. In fact, as one of the Salish Sea Ballet dancers, he is used to performing. Jensen played the prince in their rendition of “The Nutcracker” last December and will be performing in “Cinderella” this summer.
While he likes ballet, he loves to travel.
“I’ve been to three out of the 195 countries [in the world],” Jensen said proudly.
The furthest places he has gone has been Mexico, Alaska and New York. His favorite place to visit so far is his family’s cabin in New York. The cabin was built in 1911 by his mother’s great-grandfather. Countries on his bucket list to visit include Tunisia, where they filmed “Star Wars,” as well as Lake Victoria in Tanzania and Uganda, and Japan. He pointed each location out on the classroom globe, which are no doubt marked on the maps inside his head as well.
“Holding an accurate mental map of the world is an act of humility,” Pippen told the Journal, explaining why learning geography important.
He continued, citing an article, “The Warped View of Mental Maps,” published Science News magazine by Richard Monastersky. That article examined the phenomenon of people exaggerating the size of their home regions, illustrating how human bias can skew people’s perception of the world, affecting trade, travel and politics.
“It [mental mapping] does show that Henry is already operating with a very sophisticated understanding of how geography works,” Pippen said.
For more info, visit www.nationalgeographic.org/bee.