Schools Fight Geographic Illiteracy With National Contest

DO you know: 1.What an Argentinian cowboy is called?

2.Which African river runs near Tombouctou, often called Timbuktu?

3.On which continent the Snowy Mountains are found?

Don't fret if you missed these questions. Most Americans probably would not have correctly answered ``gaucho,'' ``Niger River,'' and ``Australia.''

But seventh-grader Adam Minniear knows the answers. He is the Ohio champion of a new national geography bee - and he represents the good news about geography learning in the United States.

In an effort to bolster geography in the classroom, the National Geographic Society is sponsoring the nationwide bee. Some 13,000 schools participated, testing the geographic knowledge of their fourth- through eighth-graders. This month the top 100 school winners went on to a competition in each state (plus the District of Columbia and four US territories). Those 55 winners will compete in Washington, D.C., on May 18 and 19 for the national championship.

Adam, a student at St. Helen School here in Dayton, won the Ohio bee by correctly answering such questions as: What city is located where the White Nile and Blue Nile rivers come together? The answer: Khartoum.

``It's the capital of Sudan,'' says the blond whiz. ``I had always really liked capitals and borders and things like that. I visualized two rivers coming together. And since it was the capital, it was easy.''

To prepare, Adam studied after school with his social studies teacher, Kathy Bedel, and a friend. He reviewed atlases, textbooks, and played National Geographic's game, Global Pursuit. Several other state winners boned up, too, but not everyone. When asked how he prepared, Alabama winner Matthew Joseph answered curtly: ``I didn't.''

The success of these students stands in stark contrast to the majority of young people in the US. According to a Gallup survey of geographic knowledge in nine countries last year, American 18- to 24-year-olds came in dead last. When Gallup tested a large sample of Americans, it found that one in seven could not find their own country on a world map.

``For some reason, after World War II, geography got folded into other school programs,'' says Robert Breeden, a National Geographic senior vice-president. And the results have been disastrous. To turn things around, the society instituted the bee, created various teacher-training programs, and this year will expand its telecommunications network for students who want to share results of their scientific and geographic experiments (on acid rain, for example).

Mr. Breeden is encouraged by the response. Schools all across the country have reported they are using the geography-bee questions as teaching aids, he says. ``I think we are beginning to see the shift taking place.''

Adds Ms. Bedel, ``I think the pendulum is swinging back. ... This can be fun to learn about.''

(The country in the box above is Mali.)

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