Here's an irony that geographers don't find very amusing: as Americans buy more and more of their cars and stereos and clothes from foreign countries, they seem to know less and less about where those countries are. In fact, one in seven Americans surveyed last year by the National Geographic Society could not even pick out the United States on a world map.

It is with those dismal results in mind that the National Geographic Society is launching what it hopes will become a new staple in American education - the Geography Bee.Like that other revered institution, the spelling bee, the Geography Bee begins with local contests and culminates in a national bee. The first round of the first bee begins Friday at schools around the country. In Utah over 200 schools will participate, according to state Geography Bee coordinator Sheila Powell. Nationwide some 23,000 schools will participate.

The Geography Bee will be open to students in grades four through eight.

The top 100 students in the local bees - as determined by an oral contest and a follow-up written exam - will go on to compete in a state bee on April 7. That winner will fly to Washington, D.C., to compete on May 15 in the national finals. National Geographic is hoping to get "Jeopardy" game show host Alex Trebek to moderate.

"We want to get geography more in the limelight," explains Powell, a fourth-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary School and a member of the Utah Geographic Alliance. "Our goal is to have teachers teach geography more, instead of it being the 12th thing down on their list."

For students, the incentive is more concrete - a $25,000 college scholarship for the national winner.

The Geography Bee will test students' knowledge of both "trivia" and thinking skills, says Powell. There will be lots of "name the capital of . . ." questions, of course; but there will also be questions that require students to make mental connections. For example: "What natural disaster do both Denver and Switzerland have in common?"

Students in Powell's class at Riverside Elementary in West Jordan have been looking at maps and reading the atlas for weeks. And they've come a long way, as Mark Hill can attest:

"I never even knew there was a Green River till I got in the fourth grade."