Man Tries to Improve Nation's Geography IQ

Roger Andresen (search) wants to make sure you know that Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain, Minsk is the capital of Belarus and the hottest place on earth is in Ethiopia.

Disturbed by the United States' poor showing in an international geography (search) competition, Andresen quit his job as a fiber optics engineer two years ago to devote his life to improving the nation's geography IQ.

He now hawks his prize-winning geography puzzle in toy stores across the nation while promoting his online geography competition, which has drawn more than 350,000 participants from 179 countries.

"Almost every developed nation is better than us," Andresen said of the quiz.

"Maybe we just get too caught up in such a busy life," he said. "Most other countries have more vacations and travel more and when they are in school they get taught more about the rest of the world."

Andresen, 31, visited more than 40 countries as a boy. His father was a financial officer for Pan Am and Eastern airlines, giving him the opportunity to jump on jets by himself as a teenager and take off for South America, Central America, Europe and Africa, sometimes alone.

"I went to Kenya by myself for about a week, flying two days each way," Andresen said. "If there was an open seat, I could get on it."

Andresen's father, Rolf, says it was natural for his son to have a fascination with geography. Rolf's parents, who came to the United States from Norway in their youth, and his wife's parents, who were from England, worked as missionaries in countries such as Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Roger Andresen assumed it was normal to have intimate knowledge and appreciation of the world and that most Americans were armed with a basic education in world geography. Then he learned late in 2002 that the United States scored next to last in an international geography competition conducted by National Geographic magazine. He became obsessed with the notion of finding a way to spark a renewed interest in geography.

"I was so involved in my career I had no chance to think about geography, and I think so many Americans are in a similar rut," Andresen said. "So I made that crazy decision."

Even before his career change in 2002, Andresen already had an idea that resulted from a frustrating afternoon trying to find his way around Atlanta's extensive suburbs.

"I thought someone should make a puzzle, with each piece shaped like a suburb," he said. "Then I thought I should make a bigger puzzle, with each piece shaped like a country."

There are other world puzzles on the market, but he said he couldn't find another that used his concept. "I went to an international toy fair in New York and pretended I was a buyer," he said. "I went to all the companies, and no one had anything like it."

Andresen found a manufacturer in Wisconsin and now about 1,000 retailers across the nation sell his puzzle. Children's publisher Scholastic named Andresen's Global Puzzle (search) as the top educational resource of 2004.

"It's a fun way to learn a fairly dry subject," said Kim Hoight of the Palm Beach (Fla.) Organization of Home Schoolers. "The difference is just the fact that the puzzle pieces are the shape of the countries. They'd much rather learn that way than just reading and looking at a map. When you actually place a country where it goes, it just sticks in your head better."

But Andresen wanted to reach a larger audience. So next came an idea designed for the Internet-savvy — the Geography Olympics (search). Participants representing 179 of the world's 193 countries have logged on to test their geography IQ.

He said the idea "was to expose the fact of how lousy we are," but lately he has seen the United States move up to 36th on the leaderboard, based on the answers from about 35,000 Americans.

Although Andresen hasn't completely replaced the salary he earned as an engineer — and his father wishes he would have taken a more conventional job — he said he feels like he's making a difference.

Besides, now he has a great excuse for more travel.

"I've got to get my products around the world," he said.