Maps flank the walls of the auditorium-size Room 110 at Cal State Fullerton.
The continents are clearly defined but not the invisible boundaries of countries. Bill Puzo, the professor of this World Geography 100 class, knows all too well that many of his entering students would be hard-pressed to locate more than one or two countries.
Puzo made national headlines last year when he released results of surveys of his entering college students. On maps of the world, 40% of the students couldn't point out the South Pacific Ocean, 59% couldn't locate Japan, and 70% couldn't find the Philippines.
One morning this week, as Puzo was getting ready for the 130 students in his world geography class, he said his freshman surveys again this year show much the same geographical illiteracy. "But I'm encouraged that people are getting concerned at the high school level and are recognizing the need to teach geography," he said.
As 11 a.m. approached, the classroom quickly filled.
Puzo, 43, a slim man with a mustache, clear-rim glasses and a dry sense of humor, took to the lectern. "First, some late-breaking news," he said.
"Here's an item from the morning newspaper. A study has found out that students who combine good grades with extracurricular activities are more likely to succeed. People who take part in things like the track team and debating and so forth enjoy significantly better odds of success in college than those who excel in studies alone. . . .
'An Absolute Zero'
"More and more corporate employers are recognizing this. They may find that, yes, you're a great engineer, but what can you talk about? As a human being, some people can be an absolute zero."
The class chuckled. Puzo then quickly gave a reminder about homecoming weekend, and then he launched into the day's lecture.
The subject was Africa, a continent where Puzo lived a couple of years, learning geography, sociology and anthropology firsthand. On the blackboard, he wrote the sources of household income among average residents of Botswana: crops, livestock, employment, manufacturing and gathering.
"What do they manufacture, do you think?" he asked.
"Stone wheels?" guessed a student.
"Not stone wheels," Puzo said. "They make items that households need. There is always somebody who makes better pots, for instance. And the person who can manufacture good beer is always in demand."
Offer Beer to Friends
He said Botswana residents might offer their homemade beer to friends and relatives who help them build their homes.
A large screen was rolled down on the stage and the lights were dimmed. Puzo then began showing color slides of eastern and southern Africa. A theme was living things' constant search for food and water, a task made difficult by the wet-dry cycles of Africa.
Ethiopia, Puzo said, is not just the subject for a rock-music benefit. "Any time that you have an elongated dry season, then you have Ethiopia," he said.
"The people in the great majority of the world--in Africa and Asia--just don't turn on the spigot. They often have to walk to a stream that is a mile or two away and haul back the water, and it's usually the girls who have to do it." A slide flashed on the screen showing African girls carrying heavy water cans. "The cans weigh close to 40 pounds," Puzo said.
Puzo showed a scene of other villagers gathered at a water hole. "This is also a part of their social life," he said. "They gather and talk; they reaffirm social ties and neighbor ties. What do you think would happen if you stopped somebody in the supermarket and tried to start up a conversation? She'd probably run down the aisle screaming that some nut was trying to talk to her. In California, we sometimes don't even know our neighbors."
The 130 students saw slides of African trees and learned, perhaps to their surprise, that the continent has very few forests. "With the exception of Antarctica, Africa is the continent with the least amount of forests--only 6%," Puzo said. "This is contrary to what people think, having grown up with the images of Tarzan in the jungle."
Slide after slide--all made by Puzo during his studies in Africa--flashed on the screen. Students in the semidark room intently wrote notes; there was never any shifting in seats or coughing or audible cues that Puzo was losing his audience.
Periodically, Puzo lightened the lecture. Flashing a shot of an ugly African animal--a wildebeest, Puzo said: "You might call this one a bad-looking Friday night date."
Describing the mating habits of African impalas, he showed a slide of one of the antelope-like male animals surrounded by female impalas. "Studley here has a harem of 30 females," Puzo said. "That, to an impala, is success."
After the class, students said Puzo is among their favorite professors at Cal State Fullerton.
"It's such a different class, and I'm learning so much," said Annie Lieu, 18, a freshman from Fountain Valley.
"He's a great teacher," said Diane Grbac, 18, of Monterey Park. "This class is never boring."
One of Puzo's students in the class is a public official who frequently is in the news: Orange County Senior Deputy Coroner Rick Plows, 27, of Santa Ana. Plows said he is taking the class as part of the general education requirements for a criminal justice degree.
"He's a good teacher, really dynamic," Plows said. "He makes the class very enjoyable because he's been to many of these places. He doesn't just give boring lectures with maps."