Geography whiz ready for the challenge

Liam McLaughlin. - Contributed
Liam McLaughlin.
— image credit: Contributed

If you know that "Hazel" in 1954 was Canada’s deadliest hurricane or that spruce accounts for 38 per cent of the tree species in the Boreal Shield and that Barbeau Peak is Ellesmere Island’s tallest mountain, you may be ready for the Great Canadian Geography Challenge.

Liam McLaughlin of Clayton Heights Secondary certainly is.

Thursday morning, the Grade 10 student’s knowledge of Canadian and world geography is going to be put to the test.

Not to pressure the lad, but he’s one of just 51 students to qualify for the Great Canadian Geography Challenge National Finals April 19.

The competition will be fierce, but his cheering section can take heart in knowing Liam, 15, is already a three-time school winner – and a provincial qualifier, proud accomplishments all.

The online exam – taken under strict controls and supervision – could be a breeze for Liam, a kid who lives and breathes geography, according to CHS’s social studies department head Gary McLaughlin, who also happens to be Liam’s dad.  “He loves it,” Gary said. “He can tell you the gross domestic product of almost any country in the world. He’s good at it.”

McLaughlin senior has coached students participating in the geography challenge for at least 15 years. He’s had some very promising candidates in that time, but he’s clearly tickled by Liam’s prospects, even while admitting Liam is nearly entirely self-taught when it comes to his geography skills and interest.

“He used to just eat atlases up. That’s what he does. That’s what he likes doing.”

The Challenge is organized by the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, a non-profit organization of teachers.

It’s open to students from Grades 4 to 10 and is divided into two levels, Grade 4-6 and 7-10.

The top three winners receive scholarships of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, in addition to representing Canada at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Today – when there are maps on anything, anywhere, on any scale, available in seconds, thanks to modern technology – is an unparalleled time for amateurs to take up and nurture an interest in geography.

But Liam’s knack for the subject goes back to the basics.

“I was always interested in geography even when I was younger,” Liam told the Reporter, chalking his success up to good, old-fashioned hard work and a genuine interest.

“I just open an atlas and look at it,” he said. “You’ll always find something really interesting.”

It’s a refreshing attitude in a world overrun by Google Maps and GPS devices.

“As long as you keep focusing on it, the better you become,” he added.

He was on a school trip to Europe when he heard he’d made the 
Canadian nationals. Their itinerary included Belgium, Netherlands, France and England.

“It’s not very amazing geography,” he noted.

Liam said he isn’t nervous as he prepares for the nationals. “I just have to wait and see what comes,” he said.

The on-line challenge tests contestants’ knowledge of Canadian and world geography. The multiple choice questions are based on themes, and include mapping and economic geography.

His supporters will be able to track his progress in real time, online, as he takes the hour- and 15-minute challenge.

He logs on at 8:45 a.m.

Eleven students qualified from B.C., and most are from private schools. Another Surrey student – from Fraser Heights Secondary – has also qualified for the 2012 Great Canadian Geography Challenge National finals.

Visit for more details.

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