Soil Science in the Education System

Caution: this considers the North American education systems as I am yet to have enough perspective to write on behalf of another part of the world on this topic.

Often I have asked myself why formal education requires the classes that they do from first grade to twelfth grade. Why the precise combination of English, math, science (almost always limited to basic principles of biology, chemistry and physics—with biology the only one branching out from basic principles to niche subjects like wildlife or anatomy), and social studies (almost always limited to history) for a core curriculum? Why the alternation of music, studio art and gym for an encore curriculum?

Muddy Corn Maze
Photo courtesy of Ada Be

What was wrong with agriculture, engineering (though occasionally a physics class would let you build something) or the neglected niches of science and social studies such as geology, meteorology, geography or cultural studies? Heck, home economics is very important too. Did we decide that if the boys didn’t want to participate and it was anti-feminism to make girls take it so, “Let’s just pretend creating meals, clothes and household repairs don’t matter.”

I suppose a better question would be: why can’t we DO some of these subjects? Surely the best way to learn the intricacies of music and create life-long appreciation is to do more than just singing and look at diagrams of an orchestra. Surely the best way to learn science is to get your hands dirty.

Oops. I suppose not all sciences would get your hands dirty—but what kid who isn’t intimidated by child-activity-phobic parents doesn’t like getting dirty? Even high school students like to take things, any things, outside of the classroom. Bring on the dirt!

My college classmates would ask the same thing, especially in my agricultural communications classes. You would think that standard curricula would include content as fundamental as the backbone of survival and society: obtaining food, shelter, and clothing. In most societies that translates into agriculture. Agriculture is all about soil one straight way or around another.

I found a full-length educational video on soils that was produced for fourth grade students (different segments of the video are on the same YouTube channel). Although dated, the content is thorough and as valuable for adults as it is for kids. It is fascinating. I would have loved it as an elementary student. The science isn’t dumbed down considering most people have zero exposure to the topic. Other than a few inaccuracies (the usual glorification of government soil scientists teaching “new techniques” to Dust Bowl farmers—but another part of the video addresses those very techniques as from ancient times), I regard it as a wonderful resource.

But what would make it perfect for a primary or secondary student? DOING the parts that the hosts do: dig in bare handed. Interact. You can read and hear all you like, but much of education is doing and feeling. What’s the difference between sand, silt and clay? Wouldn’t you rather feel the texture than memorize that they have different particle sizes? Wouldn’t it mean more to experiment with compost treatments and feel it at stages as it turns into 100 percent soil? Not to mention discovering all the critters that live in the soil, both micro- and macroscopic.

Soil texture
A field method of determining soil texture and composition is by feel…it’s officially okay to get your hands dirt! (Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment)

What about the satisfaction of growing food, returning scraps to the ground, maybe have school chickens harvest some scraps and leave their own, and complete a cycle of life and death? Lots of science going on among all of that—even university labs teach cell biology but putting a thin slice of onion under the microscope.

There can even be a history, science, engineering and gym combo by building experimental garden plots and test different techniques from different cultures of various time periods and dissect the gritty differences that affect efficiency: amount of sunlight, water composition, density of earthworms, fungal networks, temperature, how much these things change as winter comes if there’s a clear tarp above trapping heat. When you harvest the crops what are techniques and additives that can add to shelf life (another big history moment), types of spoilage molds, taxonomy of the flies that gather to forgotten crumbs and juices. You have curricula for multiple age groups all on a plot of land and/or roof top. There’s a lot of room for creativity, and something that often slips through the conventional education system: learning how use existing information to think for yourself in new situations.

Soil is a medium for all of that.

Agricultural classes are fun, informative, socially collaborative and translates into values and skills whether in the modern era or a post-apocalyptic one.


One thought on “Soil Science in the Education System

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s