WASHINGTON — In the United States alone, thousands of soil scientists use the skill of “soil judging” in their daily jobs. They look at and feel the soil to determine its health, carbon content, drainage properties and other factors. Using only their eyes, sense of touch, and a limited set of tools, they make land usage recommendations about agriculture, construction, wastewater treatment, recreation, and more. In addition, many companies who hire crop advisors look for excellent soil judging skills. Indeed, the skills honed by soil judging are used by soil scientists, agronomists, environmental consultants, and more around the world.
For this reason, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) sent the top students from the U.S. Collegiate Soil Judging Contest to the 20nd World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow, Scotland last week. Working with coaches John Galbraith, Jaclyn Fiola and Brian Needleman, the U.S. team brought home first place. The winning students were Clare Tallamy, Ben Atkins, Kennadi Griffis, and Isaac Nollen.
According to Clare Tallamy, “the world soil judging contest was unique because we got to experience different soils, different people, and different methodologies.” Students typically train at their own schools and then compete in regional and national competitions within the U.S. Then they qualify for the winning team that is sponsored by Soil Science Society of America. Ms. Tallamy is a student at Virginia Tech.
Ben Atkins, also of Virginia Tech, says the contest, “introduced me to soil orders that I had little experience in, including Histosols and Spodosols. Additionally, it exposed me to the World Reference Base soil classification system since other countries used this system for the contest.”
“Team USA spent much of the week studying Soil Taxonomy with Team Australia, and we learned some Italian words from Team Italy,” shared Kennadi Griffis. “This experience has further motivated me to pursue a career in soil science and create new connections around the world.” Griffis is a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Isaac Nollen, a student at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, appreciated being able to see not only Scotland, but the peat bogs. Peat as a natural compound is uncommon in the lower 48 states but is commonly used in potting soil mixes. Experience with soils in different locations is a benefit of participating in soil judging experiences.
Ms. Tallamy also won first place in the individual soil judging contest. She received high praise from soil judging coach Dr. John Galbraith of Virginia Tech. “Clare is a team player, and enjoys teaching and sharing with others. Her goal is to learn as much as she can about soils.”
Galbraith also shared that the team was, “confident and focused but stayed relaxed on the day of the contest. They had done a series of practice sessions and reviewed the rules before they came to Scotland, so they were well-prepared. They also spent time being good ambassadors for the U.S., meeting two or more new friends every day.”
Soil judging is a professional development tool important to a soil science student’s education. “Soil judging is part of career preparation,” says Dr. Brian Needleman, a coach from University of Maryland. “It brings out many essential elements of professional development that are difficult to replicate in a classroom setting (or even working in a lab or many internships). Soils in the field rarely match our textbook descriptions or our expectations as there are complications that confuse even the best soil scientists. Students are put into a high-pressure, high-stake situations and must work both individually and collaboratively to tackle complex problems.”
Dr. Jacyln Fiola of Virginia Tech also served as a team coach. “For some of the students, this was their first time seeing and describing Spodosols and Histosols as well as some other soil properties and features,” she says. “This was a wonderful opportunity for them and their hard work throughout the summer and the practice days paid off. I am very proud of them!”
According to Fiola, “soil Judging is the best preparation students can get for a career in soil science. The skills they learn, and practice will be invaluable throughout their careers, as well as the connections with soil scientists from all over the world.”
–Soil Science Society of America