Jan. 30, 2013 -- For soil scientists and other soil enthusiasts, it can be hard to imagine that others don’t share the same passion for what lies beneath our feet. But for many other people, not only is soil dull as dirt, it’s practically invisible.
“People don’t see soil. They walk on it, but they don’t see it,” says Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) president and North Carolina State University soil science professor, David Lindbo. He and a team of co-authors now hope students, teachers, and the public will take a fresh look at this vital substance in SSSA’s newly published book, Know Soil Know Life.
Targeted to high school students and college students in introductory courses, the 206-page book tells the story of soil through engaging, accessible language and hundreds of full-color photos and illustrations. It begins with a chapter that challenges readers to view soil not as inert dirt, but as living material that carries out critical functions for the environment and for people.
Soil filters our drinking water, for example, and supports the plants that feed, clothe, and shelter us. “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless,” quips co-editor Clay Robinson, a New Mexico soil scientist who has taught tens of thousands of school kids about soil as the persona, ‘Dr. Dirt.’
Know Soil Know Life then takes readers through a traditional sequence of soil science topics, including soil chemistry, biology, and classification, before drawing a direct line between people and soils once again. In chapter 8, “Soil and Society,” the authors describe the impact of soil on human endeavors ranging from art to warfare. This section also details soil’s role in the collapse of past civilizations, such as the Easter Islanders, and modern-day concerns like desertification and deforestation.
The book concludes with a chapter on the soil science careers available in research, land management, education, and environmental consulting—options that many of today’s soil scientists didn’t learn about until they were almost through school, Robinson says. This includes Deb Kozlowski, a soil scientist and grade school art teacher who co-edited Know Soil Know Life with Robinson and Lindbo.
“I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as soil science until I went to college,” Kozlowski says. “So, we want kids to grow up knowing about soil science, and that is a bona-fide field of science you can make a living at.”
Lindbo, Robinson and other contributors to Know Soil Know Life belong to the SSSA K-12 education committee: a group of SSSA members who’ve devoted themselves to getting many more people to understand and appreciate soils. And this, the committee knows, means grabbing their attention early on.
Thus, the group’s first book project was a text for 4th graders, SOIL! Get the Inside Scoop, which goes with the traveling soils exhibit for kids, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” (now showing at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, MN). Later, the committee worked with the North American Envirothon, a national environmental education program based in Texas, to revise the learning objectives for its annual competition for high school students.
That effort produced a detailed outline of soil-related topics, which the K-12 committee subsequently decided to expand into Know Soil Know Life, Lindbo says. The team also recently launched a website for K-12 educators, www.soils4teachers.org, and one for children, www.soils4kids.org.
Where does a group of extremely busy soil science professionals and professors find the time and energy to teach young kids, too? “The pat answer is that they’re our future,” Lindbo says with a laugh. “I do it because I enjoy it. I enjoy working with students of all ages, as well as adults, because I feed off their enthusiasm.”
He and the others now hope that Know Soil Know Life spreads the enthusiasm for soils far and wide. True, the relationships between soils, plants, climate, water, and humans aren’t always easy for those outside the profession to grasp. Nevertheless, says Robinson, “Those connections can be made—if people are just asked to make them.”