Google Earth-Based Quiz Tests Kids' Africa IQ

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 12, 2006
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

What's the most populous city in Africa? Are the Mbuti a pygmy group? Which river, the Zambezi or the Nile, empties into the Mediterranean Sea?

Just a few years ago such an onslaught of questions would have sent students scrambling for an atlas and encyclopedia set.

Today anyone with a computer can launch a layer on the desktop globe Google Earth and virtually fly over Africa as they search for the correct answers.

A double-click of the mouse over Cairo, Egypt, zooms in on the bustling city surrounding the famous pyramids. A popup balloon lets viewers know that this is Africa's largest metropolis, where more than 11 million people reside.

The feature is part of the "Test Your Africa IQ" quiz on Google Earth co-developed by the My Wonderful World campaign.

The campaign, led by the National Geographic Society, aims to raise geographic knowledge among kids and teens. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

M. Ford Cochran is director of the society's online mission and education programs, which runs My Wonderful World.

He says Google Earth and other interactive mapping technologies "are putting the power of geography at anyone's fingertips.

"You can now travel around the world in about as much time as it takes to think about where you want to go," he said.

Africa Awareness

My Wonderful World was launched in response to a report released in May that revealed young adults in the U.S. are falling behind in geographic literacy.

About 20 percent of the respondents thought Sudan—Africa's largest country—is in Asia. Half of them couldn't find New York State on a U.S. map.

Africa was the featured continent during My Wonderful World's Geography Awareness Week from November 12 to 18.

To promote the event, Cochran and his colleagues approached Google Earth to find ways to incorporate facts about the continent into the popular digital mapping software.

"They came to us and explained the theme this year was Africa, and that was synergistic with some projects we had going on," said Rebecca Moore, a Google Earth software engineer.

The Mountain View, California-based company had already digitized a historic map of Africa from the David Rumsey private collection and has been developing an atlas of information about the continent, she said.

Over the course of two weeks National Geographic education specialists designed the questions, while the Google team directed how the quiz would play out on the screen.

"When you select an answer, it flies you there, and we wanted the flight to be interesting and the destination of the landing point to be informative," Moore said.

Positive Response

According to Cochran, response to the quiz has been positive.

In general, he expects interactive mapping technology to play an increasingly important role in geography education.

"People care about the things they see and they know, things they feel they can touch," he said.

"And a tool like Google Earth lets you see places that are far away and brings them up close. That will make people better stewards of the planet."

(Related news: "Satellite-Photo Atlas Uses Digital Globe to Show Eco Damage" [October 23, 2006].)

Michal LeVasseur is executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education (a My Wonderful World coalition member) and a professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

She said hard data on the effect of using tools like Google Earth on geography education is difficult to obtain.

But anecdotes suggest the technology is popular and is changing the way people relate to the world.

"It allows them to see the world in a different way that is much more dynamic than looking at maps alone … it's fun, it's interactive," she said.

And while they are having fun, she added, "they are learning at the same time."

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