A world geography teacher from American Fork Junior High School returned Monday from Washington, D.C., where he was honored as one of the nation's top geography teachers.

Mike Mower was honored as one of 11 finalists for a program he and an Orem Junior High School teacher started where students from the two schools interact with students from the Soviet Union. More than 500 teachers nationwide competed for the awards.Arlene Johnston, an elementary teacher from Solana Beach, Calif., won the $10,000 Excellence in Geography Teaching Award established this year by Rand McNally and the National Council for Geographic Education. Johnston's students became pen pals with people from all 50 states.

As a finalist, Mower received $500, a crystal globe award and teaching materials from Rand McNally.

Mower and Orem teacher Sharon Smith initiated a program in 1987 where more than 500 students wrote letters to students attending three Soviet Union schools describing life in Utah and inquiring about life in the Soviet Union. Two of the schools replied and communication has continued since. The program now involves seven Soviet schools. Mower said the program has now extended to be more of a cultural exchange. Packages of materials are exchanged between the schools containing materials from the communities, the schools and the state. The packages contain various items depicting life in Utah and the Soviet Union.

"It just kind of gives them a glimpse of our state and community and the things that we do here," Mower said. "And we get to see what their life is like."

As a result of the program, Mower and Orem teacher Sharon Smith, traveled to the Soviet Union in 1988 to visit one of the schools participating in the exchange.

"That was the thing that really solidified the project," Mower said.

Mower hopes that in the future some of the Soviet teachers and students will have a chance to visit Utah and some of the Alpine students will have a chance to visit the Soviet Union. He said the program is getting better every year.

"This is a great opportunity for the kids to give a positive impression of our country and they in turn have the same opportunity," he said.