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Puzzles help connect ND students, geography

FARGO, N.D. -- Jonathan Melgaard found it embarrassing that many people he contacted at random on the street couldn't name the county containing North Dakota's capital city.

Project lead Jon Melgaard scans the QR code on the back of one of the counties of North Dakota with an iPod, or any smart device, which will then display all sorts of information about that county with the Connected Puzzles. Dave Wallis / The Forum
Project lead Jon Melgaard scans the QR code on the back of one of the counties of North Dakota with an iPod, or any smart device, which will then display all sorts of information about that county with the Connected Puzzles. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO, N.D. -- Jonathan Melgaard found it embarrassing that many people he contacted at random on the street couldn't name the county containing North Dakota's capital city.

His part in trying to increase geographical literacy in the Peace Garden state: Developing puzzle maps of North Dakota with each of the 53 counties as educational tools.

On the back of each puzzle piece representing a county is a Quick Response code that a smartphone can read, linking the device to an Internet site with detailed information about the county -- including confirmation that Bismarck, home of the state capitol, is in Burleigh County.

The "Connected Puzzles" are being distributed to each fourth-grade classroom in North Dakota, thanks to an effort spearheaded by Melgaard, who raised $45,000 to cover the costs of the project.

The wooden puzzles now are being delivered to schools in Fargo, including Centennial Elementary. Tom Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Centennial, is one of the teachers who advised Megaard on how to fit the puzzles into curriculum and teaching standards.

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"The students and I are really looking forward to interacting with the puzzles," Johnson said. "The main thing is we'll be tying in the information writing on North Dakota topics."

He added: "I don't want this to be just a milk break puzzle. I want it to be a tool students use to truly understand their state.""

Johnson's classroom is equipped with six iPods, each with a program that can scan Quick Response codes that link the county puzzle pieces to the Internet. For now, the links connect to Wikipedia entries.

At least in some classrooms, the puzzles have been well-received, said Marilyn Weiser, coordinator of the North Dakota Geographic Alliance, a group working to promote geographic literacy.

She said a member of a Valley City teachers' center network said the puzzles are popular. "She had raved about how excited the teachers in her area were about the puzzles."

"Teachers are in constant search of current information or trends," added Weiser, a retired teacher. "If I were in the classroom, I would certainly be looking for many ways to use this."

An advisory group will meet soon after the Christmas holidays to work on expanding the online materials.

"We hope to have lesson plans available," said Weiser, a member of the advisory group.

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"It's a work in progress," said Erik Holland, educational curator at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which has been helping with the Connected Puzzles project.

"For young kids, puzzles are really good," Holland said.

The advantage of linking instructional materials to the puzzles is that the online materials can easily be expanded and refined over time, Melgaard said. "They're dynamic."

The idea to do something to try to boost geographical literacy came when Melgaard was an intern at Kilbourne Group in Fargo. A puzzle emerged as one way to make the learning experience more engaging for students, Melgaard said.

During development of the project, he was struck by the ways history and geography are entwined. Fargo, for instance, might have been located 30 miles upstream on the Red River, but the Northern Pacific Railroad selected higher ground where the city took root.

"There are so many of those anecdotes about how the state was shaped and formed," Melgaard said.

Project lead Jon Melgaard scans the QR code on the back of one of the counties of North Dakota with an iPod, or any smart device, which will then display all sorts of information about that county with the Connected Puzzles. Dave Wallis / The Forum
Project lead Jon Melgaard, left, and Centennial Elementary School 4th grade teacher Tom Johnson show the North Dakota county map being used as part of the Connected Puzzles initiative that will be used to teach students about the geography of each of the state's 53 counties. (Dave Wallis / Forum News Service)

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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