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August 22, 2017
A.J. Manning’s interest in geography has taken him around the globe.
The senior at Bartow High IB has a drive to learn about different countries and cultures that has brought him to the world stage twice, competing in the International Geography Olympiad.
The annual competition features the best 16- to 19-year old geography students from all over the world.
“It’s been a great honor to be a representative of the U.S. twice in an international competition … I never thought I would have an opportunity like this,” he said. “The fact that I’ve been able to do it twice has just been amazing.”
As a precocious 4-year-old, Manning was fascinated by maps.
In 2004, as three hurricanes ripped through Central Florida, Manning was intrigued by the various maps shown on the Weather Channel. “Since then, I’ve just always loved geography,” he said.
He recently returned from Belgrade, Serbia, where he earned a silver medal for his performance in the International Geography Olympiad. Manning was part of a United States team that placed third out of 41 teams overall -- their highest finish to date.
Manning also competed in last year's Geography Olympiad in Beijing, taking home a gold medal. “What he has done is show what a good kid can do if they study, work hard and are focused,” said Dr. Brenda Hardman, principal at Bartow High IB.
Hardman said she has watched Manning mature from a shy freshman into a scholar who is confident of his intellect.
“He is principled,” she said. “He is a great communicator. He takes risks. One of the risks that A.J. takes is he tries to do things beyond what he knows he can do.”
Shelly DeVore, a Bartow High IB teacher who has known Manning since he was a freshman, described him as having a passion for learning and competition. “He is just a sponge, soaking up information and wanting to excel,” she said.
For Manning, geography is more than just knowing the name of an obscure river in some faraway country. It’s being able to use creative thinking to figure out how people and the land interact. It’s using knowledge from different subjects to better understand the land itself.
The International Geography Olympiad is a rigorous contest that puts such complex thinking to the test.
Teams prepared written responses for topics as complex as analyzing various economic, political and cultural factors of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. During a field exercise, they went to a park outside Belgrade and spent time taking notes on the features so they could design plans for youth tourism. There were even 40 multiple choice questions that could cover just about anything related to geography. One question had the contestants observing a soil sample to determine where it might have originated.
“You can use critical thinking to try to come up with answers instead of just pure memorization,” Manning said. “That’s definitely one thing I like a lot about (geography).”
After graduation, A.J. would like to study computer science and hopes to attend MIT, Stanford University, Georgia Tech or Carnegie Mellon University.
Manning said he looks back fondly on all of his Polk County teachers and believes his Bartow High IB educators have prepared him well for the future.
“All of the teachers here have been great,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to have this kind of education.”
Geography and traveling are sure to continue to be a big part of his life.
During the summer, he enjoys taking family trips to national parks, particularly those with waterfalls, mountains and hiking trails. Even his first taste of overseas travel was made possible by his geography knowledge.
“Actually, I hadn’t gone out of the country until I had gone to Beijing last year for the International Geography Olympiad,” he said. “It was definitely a long flight, but visiting other places has been great. I’ve loved being able to actually see all these things that I’ve read about and heard about, and to meet people from different backgrounds and different cultures.”