Putting geography back on the schoolroom map

GILBERT M. GROSVENOR says a lowly pencil can teach a lot about geography. Mr. Grosvenor is the president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, an organization that has spent the last 100 years telling the world that geography is important, and plans to spend the next 100 years in the same pursuit.

In a recent interview in his Washington office, Grosvenor took out a pencil and explained:

``The pencil is a classic example of interdependence. There are 15 to 18 ingredients in it, among them graphite, which comes from Sri Lanka; zinc, which comes from, among other places, the USSR; a wax which comes from Mexico; pumice which comes from Italy. Then it gets into ships that are registered in Liberia that carry all these materials which are made in Japan. You think of a pencil as just a piece of wood with lead in it, but there's more to it. It is the whole story of working together with different nations in the world.''

That's important stuff, he says. Unless you know about those countries; where they are, what they produce, and the roads of commerce that get their products out - the political and cultural geography, in other words - then the world is a mystery. Without that knowledge, diplomats blunder, bankers make bad loans to countries that don't have the resources to pay them back, oil containers are placed upriver from millions of homes, and children grow up bigoted.

The world is a mystery to too many people, says Grosvenor, citing statistics like 95 percent of the incoming freshmen at a Midwestern college not being able to place Vietnam on a map.

Grosvenor is marshaling the mighty resources of the National Geographic Society to change this situation. Recently, the society, in honor of its 100th anniversary, unveiled a new educational endeavor: a $20 million National Geographic Society Education Foundation. The foundation intends to provide a permanent basis of support for the society's extensive activities in geography education.

According to Dr. Lloyd H. Elliott, president of George Washington University and now president of the foundation, ``We want the foundation to focus public attention on the critical lack of geographic literacy in this country, to bring together the resources needed to remedy the situation, and to target those funds where they can make a real difference - in the hands of classroom teachers and students.''

Geography education has been on the wane since after World War II, said Robert L. Breeden, senior vice-president for publications and educational materials, at a recent press conference. It was mixed in with social studies, then put on the back burner. According to National Geographic Society figures, 90 percent of teachers who include geography in their social studies classes majored in another subject in college; 30 percent never even took a course in geography. And geography teaching, says Mr. Breeden, is straight out of the 1950s rote memorization of capitals; boring to tears a generation of students reared on ``Star Wars.''

When a series of tests came out in 1984 that shocked the nation with students' lack of knowledge about geography, Grosvenor started writing about the problem in his National Geographic column. The enormous response from readers encouraged him to form the Geography Education Program, to reinstill the worth of geography in the minds of educators and to provide them with up-to-date teaching methods.

The cornerstone of the education program is the Geographic Alliance Network. Members of the alliance include elementary and secondary school teachers, university faculty, professional geographers, school administrators, and interested citizens. They hold curriculum conferences and workshops and participate in policy discussions. In the two years of its existence, alliances have been set up in 22 states, with more planned in the future.

Another hallmark of the education program is teacher outreach. For the past two summers, a group of carefully selected teachers has come to society headquarters in Washington, D.C., for the month-long National Geographic Summer Institute, in which they learn new ways to teach geography. In return, they are asked to pass along what they've learned to colleagues in their home states by holding at least three workshops during the following year. With those teachers putting to use what they've learned, the society estimates they're reaching an estimated 300,000 students annually.

Martha Sharma teaches geography at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., and also consults for the National Geographic Society. She attended the first Summer Institute.

``The institute opens for the average teacher a whole new dimension of geography than just boring facts: It's about people, their lives, how they shape the world around them,'' she says. ``They take teachers out walking in the area, and you learn how to read a great deal of information from the buildings and changing patterns of use. It suddenly makes geography real, not just memorizing places you haven't heard of before. That's what geography is all about: the relationship of people and the land they live on. And that can be your own neighborhood.''

The program also has model classroom programs in two junior high schools, in Washington and Los Angeles, where experimental teaching techniques and materials are tested. There is also a curriculum guide for Grades 4 to 12.

Working with the National Science Foundation and the Technical Education Research Centers in Cambridge, Mass., the society is developing Kids' Network, which will allow thousands of students to share results of classroom experiments using telecommunications and computer-generated maps and charts.

Probably the society's most futuristic plan is a collaborative effort with Lucasfilm Ltd. and Apple Computer Inc. that will link text, film, video, audio, and software to provide more innovative ways for the teaching of geography. Their first video disc can hold 64,000 images, enough to accommodate every page of the National Geographic magazine for the last 100 years.

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