Making U.S. Geography Fun

Where’s Ohio? What’s the highest point in the United States? What is the only state with an active diamond mine? What’s the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States? What’s a Cajun? How did the teddy bear get its name? (Answers below.)

Geography is not just about places and spaces. Not by a long shot. It’s also about the richness of the physical and human tapestry: culture, economics, elections, the environment, peoples, resources, and so much more. This diversity of topics is reflected in the more than 60 specialty or affinity groups of the more than 10,000-member Association of American Geographers.

Although geography is such a central subject in American (and international) education, studies have shown that it and the broader subject of social studies are both among the least favorite subjects for students. Because students often find social studies boring, it “does not inspire students to learn,” wrote Joan Shaughnessy and Thomas Haladyna in a 1985 paper. In the last 25+ years, there have been numerous efforts to enhance geographic literacy and make social studies more engaging through both traditional methods and by integrating technology into the educational process. But these efforts have produced few results.

A 2006 Survey of Geographic Literacy conducted by National Geographic and Roper found basic geographic literacy among Americans aged 18-24 was lacking (PDF of full report). After five years of war in Afghanistan, nearly nine in ten Americans could not locate Afghanistan on a map of Asia. Closer to home, only 50 percent and 43 percent of those surveyed, respectively, could locate New York or Ohio on a map of the United States. A 2010 report found that while between 70 percent and 80 percent of 4th, 8th and 12th graders performed at the basic level for geography, only about 20 percent to 27 percent were proficient and a small fraction (1 percent-3 percent) were advanced. And, of course we’ve all seen those Jay Leno “Man on the Street” videos (check out this video on “Why We Need to Teach Geography”).

Despite the alarming numbers, most everyone recognizes that at least a basic understanding of social studies (geography, civics, etc.) is essential in an increasingly interconnected world. Thus, there have been efforts to create a set of geography standards aimed at, from a macro-perspective, “enhancing economic competitiveness, preserving quality of life, sustaining the environment, and ensuring national security.” While these standards include the basics, they emphasize higher-level learning skills, such as applying that basic knowledge to interpret events.

At MindSnacks, our new U.S. Geography app aims to help bridge the knowledge gap by making U.S. Geography fun and facilitating geographic proficiency for our users. The eight games included in the app start with the basics—where the states and major landforms and landmarks are located, state capitals, state flags, and state shapes. But the app also delves deeper, integrating both broad geographic and cultural literacy.

A 5th grade teacher in the midwestern United States who beta-tested the MindSnacks U.S. Geography app concluded:

This absolutely will engage students. I knew that after the first five seconds of the first game I played. It makes a normally mundane task, like memorizing states and capitals, an engaging and fun activity. I’d start using this in my classroom tomorrow. It fills a huge need that, as far as I know, isn’t currently being met. I haven’t seen anything else like this on the market, and I’ve looked because my students practice states and capitals all year long.

While this app won’t turn you into a walking encyclopedia, it (and other fun geography games) can play an instrumental role in enhancing geographic literacy and preparing students for high school, college, and life beyond.

Answer Key (other than locating Ohio):

Q. What’s the highest point in the United States?

A. Mount McKinley, in Alaska, rises to 20,320 feet.

Q. What is the only state with an active diamond mine?

A. Arkansas.

Q. What’s the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States?

A. Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1636.

Q. What’s a Cajun?

A. French-speaking Louisianans descended from French Canadians are called Cajuns.

Q. How did the teddy bear get its name?

A. While hunting in Mississippi in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt spared a cub’s life, leading to the “teddy bear.”


Michael Levy joined MindSnacks in 2013 as Educational Content Director. He formerly served as Encyclopaedia Britannica's Executive Editor (2006-11) and editor of its Blog (2010-11). Before entering educational publishing, he was a political science professor specializing in American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Go Heels!

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