Americans, who tend to regard California as a foreign country, are not very good at geography. Some don't know Mongolia from Morocco. Others think tundra is a tropical fish.

The word is out, however, that some children may be smarter than their parents when it comes to geographical facts.These are bright kids who know that Cairo is the most populous city in Africa, Guyana is located in South America and the Soviet Union, Canada and China are larger than the United States.

In short, these are young Americans who can find their way home at night without a map.

Fifty-five of these whizbangs will compete here May 19 for college scholarships of up to $25,000 in the first annual National Geography Bee for students in grades 4 through 8.

The idea is to promote the study of geography and shame the rest of us into recognizing how little we know about where we live, where other people live and where giraffes live (African grasslands) when they're not in a circus or a zoo.

The bee is sponsored by the National Geographic Society which is spending $1 million this year to bring winners and their teachers to Washington after preliminary rounds at 13,000 schools in 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories. State finals are to be held April 7.

Gilbert Grosvenor, the society's president says more should be taught in the schools. "Our kids are semi-literate at best, in geography," he says.

The top three winners will receive scholarships of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000. There will be seven runner-up awards of $500 each.

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Where in the world?

Here are six questions similar to the ones being asked in the National Geography Bee for students in grades 4 through 8:

- Which South American civilization built the fortress called Machu Picchu?

- Name the world's largest inland body of water.

- Which continent contains no countries?

- Which United States city, with a population of half a million, is located exactly one mile above sea level?

- Name two states that begin with the letter "M" that do not share a border with Canada.

- The geographic center of North America is located in which state?

The answer:

- Inca.

- Caspian Sea.

- Antarctica.

- Denver.

- Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Missouri.

- North Dakota.