Students Test the Depths of Their Soil Knowledge in Regional Contest

Students crowd into the "pit" to gather samples of soil. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Students from six universities in the Plains and Midwest listen to instructions before starting the competition. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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October 25, 2016 - 6:45am

We often take for granted the value of things right under our noses. Or perhaps even the dirt right under our feet. This is a different kind of college competition focused on the stuff we walk on every day.


A crowd of warmly-dressed college students stands near piles of dirt, recently excavated from a pit in the ground. They listen attentively to instructions, then make their way over to the five-foot deep trench. Each student carries a bucket full of tools.

The first group climbs into the pit and begins to scrape, stab and study the wall of dirt. The atmosphere is very quiet, and a little tense. This is a regional collegiate soil judging contest, held today at Pawnee State Recreation Area just west of Lincoln.

“We have representatives from six states, six schools competing in who can do the best job describing the soil and landscape in this area, as well as deciding what the best uses of the soil would be for,” said Dan Shurtliff, Nebraska’s assistant state soil scientist. He remembers participating in these competitions back when he was a student.

“They're a lot of fun. They're nerve-wracking for the students, that's for sure,” Shurtliff said.

Ashley Nassar is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying water science with a minor in soil. This is her first competition. And she feels nervous. “Even though you have so much practice it's just…very nervous,” Nassar said. She’s new to studying soil—she recently switched majors from chemical engineering, and said she’s still learning the ins and outs of soil.

“If you look at soils sometimes you feel like, oh that's just dirt. Now I'm learning, okay that's not just dirt, it's soil,” Nassar said.

In the trench, students fill muffin tins with soil from different parts of the wall. Back out of the pit, they roll, squish and squeeze the dirt between their hands, making notes. Nassar explains what they’re looking for.

“Does this have enough clay or does this have enough sand, to determine is it like a silty clay or a silty clay loam, there's just so many different things that you have to do with your hands, just with your hands, to try to figure out what kind of soil it is,” Nassar said.

Allison Harvey is a senior at the University of Minnesota studying environmental science with an emphasis on soil science. While she’s excited about the competition, she says it can be hard to explain to others.

“[For] people that don’t have an ag background, it’s off in left field,” Harvey said. “They’re like, soil judging…? It’s dirt.”

But many of these students competing will go into agricultural professions, like agronomy, animal science, or plant science. UNL Associate Professor Paul Hanson organized the contest and says knowing how to judge “dirt” is critical to those fields.

“Well of course that's what the plants are growing in and that's the medium, essentially, and understanding how water moves in that medium and how nutrients are tied up in that material is really important for agronomy and understanding how your plants are growing,” Hanson said.

Allison Harvey of the University of Minnesota works on assessing soil from the pit.

Students used spray bottles to dampen soil and test how it holds moisture.

(Photos by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

That knowledge is especially important in these Midwestern and Plains states, which devote so much land to agriculture. The contest changes location every year. In the days preceding the contest, all the students visited several different pits in the area to practice and learn about regional soil differences.

“We're in the grain belt, a lot of the better soils in the upper Midwest are formed in loess,” Hanson said.

“One soil that they looked at earlier this week was not plowed, and largely that's because the soil wasn't very productive for row crop agriculture. So they're getting an understanding of which soils work for row crop ag and which soils don't,” Hanson said. 

Soil scientist Dan Shurtliff said the student’s ability to understand the different capabilities of various soil types expands into other fields, too.

“Soil is really the foundation for a lot of natural resources work. So if they're able to describe the soil, then they're able to make predictions about wildlife, what they can plant, what won't grow, what will grow, what they can build,” Shurtliff said.

Back at the contest pit, some students squirt water on their soil samples while others hold balls of dirt up against printed color cards. Allison Harvey of Minnesota described her strategy:

“First you sample, then you kind of color and texture and then you kind of step back and look at the horizon and kind of how it was formed. And because soil is geology with biology kinda working on it, you're going to have more activity in the top,” Harvey explained.

UNL worked with soil scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service pick the contest sites and evaluate them in advance. The students are judged on how accurately their assessment matches that of the professionals.

Harvey said she likes learning the specific vocabulary that goes along with soil science.

“Each soil has its own name that's super complicated but if you know it, it's like a language, just reading that word you're like, okay we've had clay illuviation, we have an E horizon and probably an upland soil, mollisol formed on a prairie,” Harvey said. And that knowledge is really useful.

“What's really cool is by just looking at those pits, I can tell you if you can build a house there, without a basement, I can tell you if you can put a septic system there, and I can tell you say, if it's going to flood a lot or not,” Harvey said. To her, the competition is more about learning than winning. It’s a lot of fun, Harvey said, and the puns roll freely.

“Regionals really gives off a Midwestern vibe like, oh scueze me, you betcha, I don't know, we're very nice people. And soil scientists in general, I love this pun, we're down to earth,” she laughed.

The top teams from this regional competition go on to a national contest in the spring.


Editor's note: The original story misspelled a soil type. It has since been corrected.

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