01/04/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Bee or Not to Bee; Geography Has the Questions (and the Answers)

I found out recently that my family will not be going to the Galapagos Islands with $25,000 in spending money later this year after all. That is because both my daughters, age 10, were eliminated from their school's finals in the National Geographic-sponsored National Geography Bee; the first because she couldn't identify the home state of Muskegon (Michigan), the second because she couldn't do the same for Lookout Mountain (Tennessee).

That's too bad, of course. But then they've already won an arguably more valuable prize: a short-term interest in geography that will hopefully become a lifelong passion. Sometimes children need a spark to generate interest and that's what the Geography Bee has done in our community -- and hundreds of others across the country, with the local school winners advancing to state followed by the national championship to be held in Washington, D.C., in May.

Our daughters came home every day sharing the questions of the day, including:

  • Which city is located on the eastern side of the Cascade Range - Eureka, California or Spokane, Washington (Spokane)
  • Most speakers of Basque live in a region near the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees Mountains on which continent (Europe)
  • The Kalahari, one of the world's largest deserts, covers much of which country - Namibia or Niger? (Namibia)
  • The Battle of Athens State Historic Site commemorates an 1861 Civil War battle fought near the border with Iowa in which state? (Missouri)
  • What large mountain system forms the western boundary of the Amazon River basin? (Andes)
These daily questions sparked discussion in the cafeteria where students giggled at the spelling of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and wondered exactly what a sultanate is and did Brunei have one (the dynasty and lands ruled by a Sultan, the ruler of a Muslim country, and yes). More importantly, the questions have had students consulting atlases and spinning globes searching for the answers -- answers which most of their parents didn't know. Check out more sample questions here.

"The National Geographic Bee encourages teachers to include geography in their daily lessons," says Mary Lee Elden, its director. "If a school registers to do a geography bee they are more likely to talk about the world -- places, economics, physical geography, events and why they occurred." She added, "In the U.S. we are quick to give trophies for football, soccer, and other sports; the Bee rewards those students who excel in the subject of geography."

As commendable as just knowing for knowledge sake is, learning about geography is no longer just the pure academic challenge that it was when I was their age. You have to know your geography if you hope to advance career wise. In an increasingly global economy, not knowing your geography may well be a critical stall.

Today's global citizens must both understand and appreciate the world beyond their own borders. I make a point of emphasizing the necessity of geographic literacy to international careers in my campus addresses. Geography goes beyond maps; it helps explain so many things, such as the effects of climate, natural resources and even political history on a culture. Geography helps us navigate the international economy. It helps us understand the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events.

In a 2006 study conducted by the National Geographic Association/Roper with Americans aged 18-24, survey results show cause for concern. Six in 10( 63 percent) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East despite near-constant news coverage of the invasion since March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map even after the images of the tsunami and the damage it caused played prominently on TV and in print newspapers and magazines for months in 2005. Seven out of 10 could not find North Korea, and 74 percent believe that English is the most widely spoken primary language in the world when it's actually Mandarin Chinese (18 percent were correct). And the lack of geographic literacy extends to the homeland as well; only half of the respondents were able to identify New York or Ohio on a map. All of these, of course, are not just esoteric trivia, but the stuff of daily headlines - not to mention our national interest - in the dawning years of the 21st Century. (If you're interested in testing your own geographic literacy, take the NGS online test.)

More and better geography education can help today's students become better world citizens -- and prepare them for a global future. Geography is typically the first step in cross-cultural awareness. It helps us to think critically and creatively about the complexities of places. It enables us to be open to the different needs and attitudes that come as a logical consequence of geography.

Thanks to the National Geographic Society, which after all, has been teaching about strange and exotic lands now for more than 100 years, an estimated 5 million students from more than 12,000 participating U.S. schools will be actively engaged in the geography competition in this, the 23rd year of the Bee.

True, it's only a Bee, and the spirit of competition -- not to mention that trip to the Galapagos Islands -- might well be what is responsible for its success. But it is also stimulating the curiosity of American school children about the natural wonders and historical significance of places within their own country -- as well as faraway lands.

What's your experience with the Bee -- or the relevance of geography to American students?