McDowell was one of 10 brave Mendenhall River Community School students who competed in school's Geography Bee this January, a rigorous competition featuring questions from around the world. She persevered through quizzing on the National Park System and Louisiana's French heritage to make it to the final round. A question about the location of Kathmandu won her the school title.
"I read a magazine article about Nepal, and my dad has a friend from Nepal," said McDowell, "so I knew Kathmandu was in Nepal. Plus my dad always calls our cats Kathmandu."
Despite McDowell's confidence, her mother Lisa, said it was a nail biter.
"You could tell when a student knew the answer to a question because they would smile and respond quickly, but Marina took her time," Lisa McDowell said. "She reads a lot, so it helped."
Mendenhall River School's Geography Bee is one of thousands of school level bees that take place across America as part of the National Geography Bee program. Designed for students in grades four through eight, this annual educational program begins in the fall. Schools register with the National Geographic Society and receive bee materials. In Juneau, extended learning teachers host the geography bee at the elementary school level, leading study sessions and organizing the competitions. There are also bees in the middle schools.
Mendenhall River Extended Learning Teacher Kathy Iliev helped Marina and her beemates prepare, studying during lunch and recess time twice a week through December.
Old test booklets, maps, and current events were their guide. Iliev invited any student with an interest to learn about the bee and join study sessions.
It takes much more than a sharp memory and a love of places to succeed in the bee, however. It takes courage. The bee is limited to just 10 students per school, which makes it a smaller, more intense competition than the annual spelling bee. Why do they do it? McDowell said she enjoys the competition, a feeling echoed by fellow participants all of whom are brave enough to test their knowledge in front of an audience of teachers, family, and peers.
Juneau's other elementary school winners included Ryan Adicke at Auke Bay School, Grant Burns at Gastineau School, Kenny Conneen at Glacier Valley School, Megan Sheufelt at Harborview School, and Amanda Stevenson at Riverbend School.
For all the winners, the next step is a 70 question written test. Students who score well on this test, qualify to advance to the statewide bee, whose winner will represent Alaska at the National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C. in May. The grand prize is a $25,000 scholarship.
While she waits for her test results, McDowell will be preparing in her favorite way - absorbing a world of knowledge through reading.
"If I make it to the state bee, I don't think it will be as scary," McDowell said.
"I won't know everyone in the audience."