An eMail message that a Durham, N.C., third-grade teacher sent to spur her students’ interest in geography also has taught them about the power of the internet.

Nicole Thompson’s students can tell you all about the penguins and killer whales in Antarctica. They also know about the months of darkness that grip Iceland each year and the tea that grows in Darjeeling, India.

The Greenbriar Academy children learned those facts, and countless more, thanks to a simple eMail message from Thompson that has raced around the globe and brought more than 20,000 responses in six weeks.

“It’s crazy, just crazy,” Thompson said. “At most, I thought we’d get about 2,000 replies.”

In early December, Thompson sent a note to about 100 people, mostly friends and relatives or those of her students’ parents. She asked the recipients to forward her eMail to people they know in other states or countries and to urge those people to write to her class.

She hoped the exercise would make geography lessons more interesting for her students at Greenbriar, a small private school.

As the messages started pouring in from every direction, Thompson realized she had greatly underestimated the power of the internet. By mid-January, messages had arrived from all 50 states, 87 countries, and each of the seven continents.

A chart at the front of Thompson’s classroom listed each nation she and the children had heard from. As more messages arrived, the children colored in each new country on a world map.

The children heard from a missionary in Tonga, an English teacher in Mongolia, a business owner in Israel, and a civilian worker at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I know where Mongolia is,” said 9-year-old Hunter Frank. “It’s easy to find on the map. Russia is even easier.”

One of the most interesting notes, Thompson said, came from a carpenter named John Ackley living at a research station in Antarctica.

“I am at McMurdo Station, which is about 800 miles from the South Pole,” Ackley wrote. “Temperatures are not too bad this time of year. Over the past three weeks, it has been around zero to 35 above zero. Not what you might expect from the coldest continent on Earth.”

Ackley sent photographs of killer whales and other life found in Antarctica, as well as shots of his surroundings.

Messages like that keep school fresh and exciting, Thompson said, and that helps children learn.

“I want to go to Antarctica,” said 8-year-old Caitie Attarian. “I also want to see Greenland. I just think it would be really neat.”

Thompson initially planned to end the project when the children had heard from all seven continents, but now she has set her sights a little higher. The new goal is to collect messages from every country recognized by the United Nations.

Some of the stragglers she is still waiting for include Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. But with more than 1,000 eMail messages arriving some days, Thompson figures it’s only a matter of time until the map is completely colored in.

“The kids are thrilled with this,” she said. “They just can’t wait to get to class.”