Despite wall-to-wall coverage of the damage from Hurricane Katrina, nearly one-third of young Americans recently polled couldn’t locate Louisiana on a map–and nearly half were unable to identify Mississippi.

Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 fared even worse with foreign locations: six in 10 couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, according to a Roper poll conducted for National Geographic.

“Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment, and isolates us from the world,” National Geographic President John Fahey said in announcing a new multimedia program to help remedy the problem. The group is hoping to enlist businesses, nonprofit organizations, and educators in a bid to improve geographic literacy.

Planned is a five-year campaign, called My Wonderful World, that will target children ages 8 to 17. The goal is to motivate parents and educators to expand geographic offerings in school, at home, and in their communities.

At the heart of the campaign is a new web site, MyWonderfulWorld.org, that provides resources for parents and teachers to help kids become more geo-savvy. It includes suggestions for simple, outdoor family activities that help teach kids about geography, links to geography games and online adventures for kids and teens, classroom materials for educators, and ways for site visitors to test their global IQs. The site also provides tools for communicating to policy makers and education leaders the importance of geographic literacy.

Supporters of the campaign appear to have their task cut out for them, judging by the results of the Roper survey of 510 people interviewed in December and January.

Among the poll’s findings:

  • One-third of respondents couldn’t pinpoint Louisiana on a map, and 48 percent were unable to locate Mississippi.

  • Fewer than three in 10 think it’s important to know the locations of countries in the news, and just 14 percent believe speaking another language is a necessary skill.

  • Two-thirds didn’t know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October occurred in Pakistan.

  • Six in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.

  • While the outsourcing of jobs to India has been a major U.S. business story, 47 percent could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia.

  • Although Israeli-Palestinian strife has been in the news for the entire lives of the respondents, 75 percent were unable to locate Israel on a map of the Middle East.

  • Nearly three-quarters of respondents incorrectly named English as the world’s most widely spoken native language.

  • Six in 10 did not know the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world. Thirty percent thought the most heavily fortified border was between the United States and Mexico.

    Joining in the effort to improve geographic knowledge are the 4-H, American Federation of Teachers, Asia Society, Association of American Geographers, National Basketball Association, National PTA, Smithsonian Institution, among others.

    Coalition members cite the growing importance of geographic literacy in an increasingly global society and economy.

    “Geography exposes children and adults to diverse cultures, different ideas, and the exchange of knowledge from around the world,” said Anna Marie Weselak, president of the National PTA. “This campaign will help make sure our children get their geography so they can become familiar with other cultures during their school years and move comfortably and confidently in a global economy as adults.”

    Besides the new web site, the coalition is appealing to parents, educators, and students with an outreach program that includes a public-service advertising campaign, promotional events, grassroots activities, eMail campaigns, and a one-hour special on geography, called “Geo-Challenge,” airing on May 4 at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Standard Time, on the National Geographic Channel.

    “Geo-Challenge” showcases the most compelling geographic stories of our time in an interactive, question-and-answer quiz format that challenges and tests viewer knowledge of the world on topics ranging from nature to science to history, its organizers said.

    Educators can find additional information on geography and related matters at a special resource center developed by the editors of eSchool News.

    Links:

    National Geographic
    http://www.nationalgeographic.org

    My Wonderful World
    http://www.mywonderfulworld.org

    eSchool News‘ Educator’s Resource Center on “GIS and Geographic Inquiry”
    http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/reports/gis/index.cfm