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Where in the world is our geography knowledge?

That is a question Jim Marggraff asked himself several years ago after he heard the following 1988 survey statistics:

*1 in 6 12th-graders thought the construction of the Panama Canal "shortened sailing time between New York and London."

*1 in 7 US adults could not locate the United States on an unmarked map of the world.

*1 in 4 Americans polled could not find the Pacific Ocean or the former Soviet Union.

*75 percent could not find the Persian Gulf on an outline map, and more than half could not locate Great Britain.

Stunned by this lack of knowledge, Mr. Marggraff, an engineer and inventor who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., set out to invent a learning tool that would be fun, interactive, and, most of all, would teach children about their world.

After years of research and testing, he came up with the Odyssey Atlasphere, a computerized, interactive globe-cum-atlas.

On a recent morning, his device piques the interest of every sixth-grader at Peabody Middle School in Concord, Mass. Marggraff is here to inspire these students to be inventors and to take an Atlasphere for a spin.

For the students, it is a globe redefined: It's a computerized novelty, a game, and a fun activity to do with a friend.

Celeste Amundsen says learning about other countries' music is very interesting. She takes the stylus and touches on Sudan, listens, then goes on to Mongolia. Also at her fingertips are other options. She can hear about a country's population, weather, currency, time of day, government, and more - and compare two countries' statistics. The answers come from a "human" voice. "Romania's population is four times Slovakia's.... It's 6:45 a.m. in California."

"Usually, you'd have to look in a couple of books to get all this information," Celeste says, touching down on Greenland. "It's kind of like an atlas and a Nintendo system and a computer. But here you just turn [the globe] around to find [the country] and on a computer you have to click."

David Ballard, another student, says it would be good if social-studies classes and computer labs had the Atlasphere. (His friend Jeff Dishman adds "and the library.") And, yes, both say they would like to have one at home.

For their part, these students seem to be on their way, answering questions about US and world populations correctly, and knowing that Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic. With styluses in hand (10 Atlaspheres are brought out now), they are geography wizards, hopping from country to country like teams of globetrotters. The music of Jamaica is a flavor of the day. "Please turn down the volumes a notch," several adults plead.

The spatial perspective makes all the difference, Marggraff says. When you hear about Rwanda in the news, you see a flat map. Here, you can see it in relation to other countries - and learn more on your own.

"The learning is self-paced, and it's interactive.... Kids stay with it," he says, noting that his company, Explore Technologies, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is introducing a cartridge called Metropolis that gives information on cities.

The Odyssey Atlasphere, which retails for $399 (with Metropolis), can also hook up to a computer so the user can download information on the World Wide Web, and is equipped with several games that children can play to challenge their geographic knowledge.

"Learning is all about context," Marggraff says. "We've turned the globe into what the imagination says it should be."

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