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Intro to Soil Science

October 19, 2013

Tomato Seedlings

This semester I am teaching Introduction to Geology, Soil Science, and Environmental Science.  Surprised?  Me too.  I’ve never had a course in any of those things.  In fact, my degree is in math, art history, and film studies.  Not knowing how to do something has never stopped me from trying, though, so when they handed me a book I smiled and promised to do my best.

I spent the month before school frantically studying.  See, the book, written by one of my co-workers, was way over my head.  So I found a high school earth science book and poured over it all day every day.  I wandered around campus in the evening looking at rocks and poking at dirt.  Students are like animals (it sounds terrible but it’s true).  They can smell fear and at the slightest break in confidence they pounce.  Embarrassing you in always more interesting than class… unless you put in the work to have an interesting class.

If I didn’t have two years of teaching experience under my belt I would never have the balls for this, but it’s happening.  In fact, it’s going really well.  Of course, I suffer from regular pre-class jitters but I know all the tricks to own the room and skirt really hard (good!) questions.  I’ve managed to stay one step ahead of them all semester and I am proud to see them making progress.  (Note to fellow teachers: they whisper, “she’s so clever!” every day I take attendance and know everyone’s name.  What do they think if you don’t know their names…?  No one says it but it’s true.)

This week the terrain shifted.  We finished geology and moved to soil science.  I hadn’t had time to prepare anything.  I’d been living off the notes I took before school opened.  It was like rounding a bend and realizing I forgot to build the bridge.  What choice did I have?  I grabbed what I could find and… built a bridge.

Did you know that soil forms when rocks break down?  It is a ridiculously obvious thing I never thought about.  See, the rocks around a field can give you a good idea about the composition of your soil and its prospects for crop growth.  So all the crappy rocks we have here are giving us crappy soil and all the rain that falls is leaching out the few nutrients that are there.  That’s not great news for our young agriculturists.

I told them it was important to manage soil and we talked about erosion.  In fact, I assigned them to visit me in the library and watch a Bill Nye video about erosion.  (At this point I could act out that show from memory!)  I told them it takes 26 years to make 1cm of soil.  But just one heavy rainfall in Liberia can erode 1in of poorly managed soil.  One of the oldest, quietest guys in the class shook his head and raised his hand.  “Sis RB, this is so concerning.  Please teach us what to do.”

I’m trying.

There are two sections of the class.  I am teaching one and Dr. Tappa, another one of the contract faculty (an actual soil scientist), is teaching the other.  He suggested we do a soil texture lab this week and I agreed because, well, I always agree with him.  What do I know, after all?  I usually attend his class right before I teach mine to fill in any last minute gaps and to keep our sections in sync.  Friday, however, I was showing Bill Nye until just moments before class.  I rushed in just as he was starting and we had no time to talk.  He raced through the lab and my jitters went into hyper-gear.  Three of my students have become so serious they come to his section and my section so they were watching and would know if I went crazy and started making things up.

I growled my jitters to the corner of my mind and asked the boys to help me carry the equipment next door.  I wrote my notes on the board and started going through the demonstrations.  Stuff was coming out of my mouth!  Like real soil science sounding stuff!  I forced them all to come up and get a handful of soil (a few of the girls shrank back but no one hides from me) and by the end of class they were running around proudly showing each other their muddy hands.  We started an impromptu chant of “Rough or smooth?” and they all left smiling.

Thank god.

The other place I’m in over my head is the farm.  Last week Dr. Tappa suggested we tell them to come on Saturday morning for practical work.  I agreed because, like I said, he’s driving.  I showed up with my boots and my clipboard and the answers to none of their questions.  “Sis RB, will you come see how I laid out my plot?  Are my walkways deep enough?”  Great question… for someone else.  I kept sending them to Dr. Tappa and whispering to him, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” every chance I got.  He just smiled and said it motivated them to see me.

Right now our freshmen are helping the seniors plant for their thesis work.  Next week we’re going to break ground on our own plot.  That’s right, my class is going to have its own small farm.  I just smiled at Dr. Tappa and promised we’d do our best.

It’s worked so far.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. blondie permalink
    October 20, 2013 4:32 am

    “a few of the girls shrank back but no one hides from me” ha! love it!

  2. October 20, 2013 8:50 am

    You wouldn’t believe some of the girls here. Last week I had one come on the farm in a short purple dress, gold chains, and flip-flops. Every time I turned around she sat down and every time I turned back around I told the boys to give her the hoe. She gives me a lot of sour face, but I can tell I’m slowly cracking her. An Agriculture major can’t be afraid to get dirty!

  3. Robert Dahl permalink
    October 20, 2013 4:40 pm


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