Cranfield University’s Festival of Flight

In this blog post, Cranfield University PhD student Tom Storr reflects on the work he and fellow soils colleagues did at the recent Festival of Flight at Cranfield University.

On the 17th September 2016, Cranfield University hosted a research exploratorium and air show to mark the 70th year since the College of Aeronautics was formed, welcoming its first group of students in 1946. Although Cranfield University has a rich history in aviation, it is equally renowned for its other research areas including Management, Energy and Power, Water, and Environment and Agrifood. Importantly, it is within Environment and Agrifood that Soil Science remains integral.

Cranfield University has the most diverse soil research capability anywhere in the UK. The soils team conducts research ranging in scale from aerial mapping to soil microbiology and most specialisms in between including soil compaction, soil erosion and soil management used to inform and guide practice in agriculture and other industries. With this capability in mind, the challenge was on to present a soil exhibit with something that would engage both children and adults.


The team ready to meet the visitors at the soil exhibits. From left to right: Alex Cooke, Joanna Niziolomski, Iain Dummett, Jack Hannam, Tom Storr, Lynda Deeks

Led by Dr Lynda Deeks, planning for the exhibition began back in early August as we had grand plans to produce soil columns that would expose the work of plant roots and worms and the effect that these have on the soil structure. Three columns, 50cm tall and 20cm wide, were packed with a clay subsoil and an organo-mineral topsoil to give contrasting soil textures and colours. Each of the columns was designed to tell a particular soil related story:

  • the first column was planted with mustard and radish, both brassica tap rooted cover crop species, used to highlight the role of cover crops in both protecting the soil surface from erosion and helping to create better soil structure;
  • the second column was planted with fibrous rooted rye and clover but with a compaction layer at approximately 15cm and few larger continuous pore spaces for roots to exploit;
  • and the third column was planted with rye and clover and the addition of a number of worms, which demonstrated the role macro-fauna play in creating drainage and aeration channel through the soil, as well as a plants ability to utilise the larger pore spaces in order to spread their root system.

Once the columns were prepared and wrapped in thick plastic sheet to protect them from the sunlight all that could be done was to wait.

With just under a month for the roots and worms to ‘do their thing’ there were a few concerns about how much work the plant roots and worms could do in that time but they did not disappoint. When  the columns were unveiled on the day of the exhibition (See Photo below) we were all surprised to see that the roots had managed to reach the bottom of the 50cm columns and that the worms had constructed a complex labyrinth of tunnels along which roots were already spreading.



The soil columns. Rye and clover (L) radish and mustard (M) and rye and clover with worms (R)

In addition to these columns, and to get people thinking about soil as a habitat, we had a mini-bug hunt set up in large trays that the children and adults enjoyed looking at under a digital microscope. The stars of the show were two very large Black slugs and a Devils coach-horse, these were supported by snails, centipedes, a millipede, woodlice and worms!

The cultural aspect of soil was also investigated by Children (and some adults) by expressing themselves through art. Fun was had by all making models out of the locally sourced Hanslope, calcareous clayey soil that was sourced from a soil pit dug on Cranfield campus. With a theme of ‘anything that flies’ we had a varied collection at the end of the exhibition with butterflies, planes, labybirds and various other flying objects created from the clay soil.



Some of the many clay models made on the day!

Central to our exhibition stand was a large soil map of Britain. This was the basis of much discussion as many had assumed that ‘soil is soil’ and pretty uniform across the country. The map helped people realise how soil changes in relation to topography, climate and geology. People enjoyed relating the soil types to their different experiences such as where they had been walking, gardening or been on holiday.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day talking to the general public about all different aspects of soil and its importance to our society, not just for food production but also for pleasure. The exhibition with its clay modelling highlighted that soil can be an art form, as well as being vital for sports, recreation, nature, the environment and the production of food.


Author: Tom Storr

Twitter: @tstorr

Acknowledgement of pictures from Dr. Jack Hannam (Twitter: @Dirt_Science) and Dr. Lynda Deeks