More than maps: Boy in Geography Bee

May 22, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Danny Dudis of Pocomoke City (38 degrees, 04.5 minutes N. lat.; 75 degrees, 34.2 minutes W. long.; pop. -- 3,922) knows his geography.

"It's a lot more than just countries and capitals," says the eighth-grader at Pocomoke Middle School, the state's contestant in the Third Annual National Geography Bee today in Washington.

It means questions like these, which Dudis answered correctly in beating out 100 other competitors at the state competition last month:

* What is the term used for a cutoff meander on a river? (Answer: An oxbow lake.)

* What peninsula has for centuries served as a cultural bridge between China and Japan? (Answer: Korea.)

* On a cartogram of Africa based on population, which country would show up as the largest? (Answer: Nigeria.)

In the broadest sense, geography offers important keys to understanding world events, says Dudis, 14.

For example, he says, "If it wasn't for the fact that there was oil under Kuwait, and Kuwait is next to Iraq, there probably wouldn't have been a war."

At a time when educational critics often deplore how little Americans know about geography, Dudis and 56 other fifth- through eighth-graders are spending today and tomorrow answering questions about countries, cultures and geographical terms.

The Geography Bee competition, the moderator of which is Alex Trebek of the television quiz show "Jeopardy!", is sponsored by the National Geographic Society's children's magazine, Amtrak and the M&M/Mars candy company.

The top three winners will receive college scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.

The contest is part a push by the National Geographic Society to renew interest in geography as a specific academic subject.

"In the mid-1980s, it became clear to the National Geographic that children just weren't learning geography," says Barbara Fallon, a spokeswoman for the society.

Schools melded geography into their social studies curriculum during the 1960s -- a factor that Fallon says contributed to a serious decline in geographic knowledge on the part of the public.

For example, a 1988-1989 survey by the Gallup polling organization found that three of four Americans could not locate the Persian Gulf on a world map; one in four could not find the Pacific Ocean; one in seven could not find the United States.

Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 ranked last among nine nations in their knowledge of geography, coming in behind Mexico.

That is starting to change, says Fallon, who noted that "this past year, we reached 5 million children . . . through the Geography Bee."

In Baltimore, geography is required for fourth-graders. In the Pocomoke City school that is home to this year's Maryland winner, geography is a required subject for every seventh-grader.

"Geography is more than just maps," says Chris Hill, a seventh-grade geography teacher and Dudis' coach in the Geography Bee. "The world keeps getting smaller all the time -- that's what it's all about."

His students learn about the cultures and languages of various countries, and study environmental and economic issues, says Hill.

And, as they study parts of the world, students draw their own maps, an exercise that results in a personalized color atlas of the world.

Dudis, who was eliminated in the final round of the state competition last year, went on to win the Maryland competition this year. He has always been fascinated by maps and learning about different parts of the world.

Dudis describes "physical geography" as his favorite part of the subject. That includes mountains, rivers and other physical features of an area.

"Cultural geography can be really hard," says Dudis. For example, "they will ask you about types of clothing that you've never heard of."

And he admits to being a little nervous about the national competition, where he is facing the nation's best young map wizards.

"It's not something you can study for," says Dudis. "I'll just continue reading National Geographic and looking at my atlas."

Can you answer these correctly?

Here are some sample questions similar to those that are being asked of contestants in the Third Annual National Geography Bee, taking place in Washington today and tomorrow.

* Some of Mark Twain's best-known novels describe life on which river? (Answer: Mississippi.)

* What kind of nutrient-rich coastal habitat is threatened by pollution and by landfills for development? (Answer: Wetlands.)

* A circle with a star in it is a map symbol commonly used to represent what kind of city? (Answer: A capital.)

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