METUCHEN, N.J. -- Education Secretary William Bennett complains that he seldom sees maps in his travels to U.S. schools. He'd be surprised if he walked into Milbrey Zelley's classroom.

Thirty-eight maps can be pulled from scrolls, flipped over easels or examined on the walls of Zelley's social studies class at Metuchen High School. They range from ordinary world maps to medieval maps to one detailing which crops grow best in North Africa.

After two months with Zelley, her eighth-graders now know, for example, which European countries the Elbe River runs through, where Bahrain is and that Nicaragua is somewhat larger than the state of New York.

Even inveterate news junkies might have learned from 12-year-old Aminatu Feinberg's class presentation the other day. Using home-drawn maps and an overhead projector, she and several classmates talked about Nicaragua's waterways, its chief crops, where that nation's population is concentrated and how geography has affected the war between the Sandinistas and Contra rebels.

Other pupils gave similar geographic presentations about other places in the headlines -- South Africa, the Persian Gulf and Japan.

Geographers increasingly argue that this is the way the subject should be learned: not just by rote memorization of state capitals or rivers, but by showing students how location, weather and other geographic factors interact with and shape human events.

In this way, Zelley and others say, forgettable points on a map can become real, and memorable.

"The point is not just knowing that Canada is to the north. Kids should be incorporating that, doing some kind of thinking along with it. Do I think memorization has a place in geography? Yes. But too often teachers and textbooks stop there," Zelley said.

To help call attention to the problem, this week -- Geography Awareness Week -- the ambassador from Uganda will give a guest lecture about his country tomorrow at Alice Deal Junior High School in the District. Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles will teach Richmond pupils about his state's roadways. National Geographic Society President Gilbert M. Grosvenor also will lecture at a Richmond school.

Similar guest lectures and classroom activities are planned in other states.