Minerva Dorantes wears a t-shirt that says 'I Dig Soils!'The T-shirt that research soil scientist Minerva Dorantes likes to wear makes it obvious to all what her career passion is. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Nitty Gritty of Dirt

Students Get Handfuls of Learning About Importance of Soils

By Keith Robinson - Published November 6, 2015

To be in this class, you really have to dig the work you could end up doing for the good of the world.

For many students, Purdue Agriculture's "Introduction to Soils" sets them on firm footing on career paths that could lead them into not only agriculture but also ecological and environmental engineering, consulting and other professions to meet the challenges from growing concerns over Earth's future.

Soil comes into play in climate regulation; production of food, fiber and fuel; water purification; flood control and carbon sequestration. It is a foundation for roads and bridges. It is a source for pharmaceuticals. It is a habitat for organisms. It enables life, and its importance is increasing as the world's population gets bigger and bigger, and the soil is used more and more.

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"Environmental Push" Adds Interest

Many years ago, nearly all of the focus on soils was in agriculture. Class instructor John Graveel says that's not so anymore.

"While most of the students in the class are in agriculture, we're seeing an upswing in students in Earth and planetary sciences and from Triple-E—ecological and environmental engineering," Graveel says.

Graveel also expects to see more people from urban areas get into soil sciences because of the "environmental push."

Among them is Minerva Dorantes, who earned her master's degree at Purdue last year and is now a research soil scientist in the agronomy department. She is from inner-city Chicago and sports a T-shirt with a message that shouts "I Dig Soils!"

Dorantes, who is interested in soil conservation as a career, is in a five-year project with a team headed by associate professor of agronomy Phillip Owens to map the soils of the entire Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. They are assessing soil properties so that the government and farmers can make better-informed decisions for land management.

"You really have to have a passion for a science like this—to get your hands dirty and better understand how people and soils relate to each other," she says.

Center Offers "Active Learning"

Agronomy 255 teaching assistant Joshua Minai and Sarah Abercrombie, a junior from Linden, Pennsylvania, examine a series of soil monoliths in Purdue's soils lab in Lilly Hall.Agronomy 255 teaching assistant Joshua Minai and Sarah Abercrombie, a junior from Linden, Pennsylvania, examine a series of soil monoliths in Purdue's soils lab in Lilly Hall. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The hub of the "Introduction to Soils" class is the Soils Resource Center in Lilly Hall. Students spend much of their time there. (They must in order to know the course material because there is only one weekly classroom lecture, plus a discussion session and quizzes in small groups.) They listen to audio tutorials and follow a study guide that directs them to run specific experiments or observe a demonstration. A faculty member or graduate teaching assistant always is on hand to make sure the equipment is working and to offer help to students.

Students working in the center have at their fingertips one of the world's largest collections of preserved soil samples, called monoliths, which give students a better understanding of the many types of soils around the world.

The center was created in the early 1970s to make soil science more appealing to students. The course was changed from the traditional classroom and lab to the more "active learning" that the center provides.

"Active learning is a big thing now," Graveel says. "But we are way ahead in this movement."

Bill McFee, a retired Purdue soil scientist and former agronomy department head, says the "Introduction to Soils" class is important because a basic understanding of soils is critical to all aspects of environmental management and the world's food supply.

"And the conservation of our soil resource is critical to the world economy," he adds. "Improving our soils' productivity will become even more important as the world population continues to grow."