s most people in the travel industry are aware, Americans' understanding of geography falls somewhere between abysmal and dreadful. The travel agent urban myth about the client who wanted to travel from Los Angeles to Honolulu by train may be apocryphal, but it isn't too far off from what real-life agents hear day in and day out.

What's worse, there's a tremendous gap between the geography education Americans receive and what's taught to most of the rest of the industrialized world. As international commerce expands in this century, Americans will be at a real disadvantage if they can't even find potential markets on a map.

I recently heard a rare piece of good news about American geography awareness. AAA has rounded up sponsors, including Continental Airlines, Holland America Line, Marriott, Pleasant Holidays, MBNA America and Universal Orlando, to fund and create the AAA Travel High School Challenge, a high-tech geography quiz that can earn geographically-savvy high schoolers some serious college scholarship money -- $156,000, to be exact.

The scholarship money is being put up by the Hogan Family Foundation, created by Ed and Lynn Hogan, founders of Pleasant Holidays.

"I tracked Ed down on a golf course, and when I asked him for support, he didn't hesitate for a moment," said long-time industry consultant Marc Mancini, who designed the project and helped round up the sponsors. (Other sponsors were equally willing, he said.)

Mancini said he was approached by AAA's Lee Granger, managing director of travel technology, whom he credits with conceiving the idea. The project is now advancing under Lynda Gwynn, AAA's director of travel training.

In order to attract the maximum number of students at a minimum cost, and to make it universally available to all who were interested in taking the test, Mancini and Granger decided the first "rounds" should be conducted on the Web.

"Because this is an open-book test conducted on a medium that also contains all the answers, it was challenging to figure out a testing system that would eliminate cheating," Mancini said. "It's a timed test, and that's critical. One simply wouldn't have time to look up all the answers.

"Also, each test is, in essence, unique. Questions are drawn randomly from a huge base of potential questions, and even the sequence of the multiple-choice answers is random. And you couldn't research the questions and try again because you've only got one shot at it. Even if your friends were looking over your shoulder to try to get a sneak peek at the questions, it wouldn't help -- their questions would be different."

The highest scorers on the Web will be invited to participate in statewide quizzes coordinated by local AAA clubs. State champions will compete in a national round-robin tournament, which AAA hopes will be nationally televised.

One differentiator between this effort and, say, the National Geographic Geography Bee is that the questions are framed around information that is pragmatic and travel-related. The underlying message is that one of the most useful functions that geographic literacy can play is in its application to future travel plans.

"We hope the Challenge may also lead to students considering a career in travel," Mancini added. The test Web site links to a "Travel Career Info Page" that includes further links to appropriate pages of ASTA, ICTA, the Hogan Family Foundation and TIA's Web sites.

Curious to see how you would do? When the challenge launches in mid-January, it'll only be open to high school students. But there is a sample quiz up on AAA's site now, and anyone can take it. Go to www.aaa.com/travelchallenge and see how you fare.

The AAA Travel High School Challenge alone may not close the geography gap between the U.S. and other Western nations. But with the Hogan family and Pleasant Holidays involved, I suspect any participant will end up knowing the realistic options to travel between Los Angeles and Honolulu.


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