READFIELD — The students started in the Horn of Africa, the region identified as the birthplace of humanity.

From East Africa, they traveled through the Middle East and across Asia, with detours into Europe and Australia, until they reached the site of the land bridge that once connected Russia and Alaska.

It took the earliest humans tens of thousands of years to complete the journey of many, many miles. For Maranacook Community Middle School students, it was a matter of a few minutes and dozens of steps to traverse a 26-by-33-foot vinyl map of Asia.

Students traced the path of human migration for Mary Ellen Tracy’s core class on immigration, culture and food. Her class was one of several to use the map for activities during its two weeks at the school.

One of Tracy’s students, eighth grader Zack Godbout, admitted he didn’t know a lot about Asia’s geography before walking across a map of Earth’s largest continent.

“It’s a lot easier to see how far it is from one point to another,” he said.

That sort of connection between spatial experience and greater understanding of geography is just what social studies teacher Carrie Emmerson had in mind when she asked for one of National Geographic’s traveling maps to come to Regional School Unit 38.

The National Geographic map cost $480 for two weeks, and students in every school in the district — Manchester, Mount Vernon, Readfield and Wayne — came for activities.

The sophomores in Emmerson’s AP world history course used it to inform essays they wrote about trade patterns in the Indian Ocean and on the silk roads crossing Asia.

“They were able to actually walk the trade routes that people have been traveling for thousands of years, carrying placards for the different goods,” Emmerson said. “One carried the plague across Asia to Europe. I have to think that is going to stick in their heads.”

A science teacher at Maranacook Community High School used the map to talk about the plate tectonics, the scientific theory that describes the movement of the plates that make up Earth’s surface.

Other classes took tours of Asia’s major sights, examined population density and distribution or played games such as an exploration game modeled after Simon Says.

“We encourage them to physically move a lot on the map and to play games on the map and to interact, either competitively or collaboratively,” said Dan Beaupré, director of education partnerships for National Geographic. “But we want them to really interact with geography in a way that’s immersive and fun. It’s meaningful and memorable.”

National Geographic has 17 maps, which also include Africa, South America, North America and the Pacific Ocean. They travel to about 900 schools a year, reaching about 450,000 students, Beaupré said. People also bring them to libraries, resorts, state fairs and festivals.

Education is one of the major missions of the National Geographic Society. Dan Beaupré said geographic literacy is more important than ever in an interconnected world.

In 2006, a National Geographic survey of Americans ages 18 to 24 revealed that only 12 percent could locate Afghanistan on a map of Asia, and only 37 percent could find Iraq on a Middle East map.

Those respondents fared poorly even on domestic geography — only 43 percent could locate New York on a U.S. map.

Many standardized tests, including the Maine High School Assessment and the New England Common Assessment Program used in Maine, do not include geography or other social studies topics.

Geography goes beyond capitals and boundaries on a map; it also includes culture, religion, economics and climate.

Emmerson said a knowledge of geography will help students understand history, politics and current events, and that it’s critical to developing a competitive workforce.

“Geography is interwoven into everything we do, in particular global geography,” she said. “When I think about the world we live in today — the skills the kids need in terms of who we’re going to be interacting with or any kind of business they’re doing — I think it’s crucial for kids to know where things are in the world and how things interact.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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