Soil School!

If you weren’t already aware, 2015 has been dedicated the International Year of Soil by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. It is mainly because of this that led to this blogs inception. But importantly, it was also because of my increasing support and want of contributing to science communication (or scicomm), often spurred on by the large number of great ambassadors already out there. Therefore, when Jack Hannam, a fellow supporter of science communication and a resident soil scientist here at Cranfield University, asked if I wanted to help out with teaching kids about soil for a local school’s activities day, I jumped at the chance.

Preparations began a couple of weeks before. We mulled over the many different aspects of soil which we could discuss with the children. Twit_ThinWe’re quite lucky in this respect at Cranfield, in that staff (including my PhD supervisor, Dr. Steve Hallett) have developed, with support from Defra, an extensive teaching resource known as Soil-net. Soil-net provides a range of teaching activities, interactive presentations and games aimed at children aged between 5-16 covering all aspects of soil science. We also had the advantage of being able to explore for potential teaching material(s) in the University’s soils archive; which also contains the World Soil Survey Archive and Catalogue (WOSSAC) as well as the legacy data and samples from the Soil Survey of England and Wales (SSEW). Whilst trawling through the archive, Jack and I became like kids at Christmas upon discovering the thin-section collection!

Jack had several weeks before undertaken a Soapbox science event, see this earlier post. For this event, a ‘megamap’ showing the spatial distribution of soils in England, Scotland and Wales and based upon Cranfield University’s Soilscapes map was produced. As part of its scheduled tour for 2015, the megamap would be included in our resources arsenal for the day. In addition, we got several microscopes from the soil labs for viewing the chosen thin sections and a selection of bulk soil samples for the kids to get their hands dirty in. We felt that these activities would give the children a chance to see that as soil scientists we investigate soil at a range of scales, from a national perspective with the map, right through to their microscopic composition. We were going to be limited on time however, as the school wanted to pass all pupils through the activities; meaning about 250 children!

Last Thursday the day had finally arrived. We jumped in the car and headed to the school in nearby Milton Keynes. We were filled with anticipation about what to expect, how the children would react to the activities, as well as getting ready to be bombarded with questions. On arrival we were greeted by the headteacher, who commented that he thought we were an ‘odd’ breed of people who would choose to study soil – something that I often get from my friends. But this didn’t deter us!

Myself, Jack and fellow PhD student and Dirt Docs blogger Alex Cooke split ourselves amongst three separate activities. We had a group of ~30 children for 30 minutes at a time, who were split into three groups of 10 and given 10 minutes per the three activities. It was going to be pretty hectic for us. But we were ready, or perhaps naive at this point, as the following pictures show….

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As each group entered (often extremely enthusiastically), Jack introduced us and explained that we were soil scientists from nearby Cranfield University. The children were then asked what they thought a soil scientist did, which predominantly got the answer of “someone who looks at soil” – that’s the crux of it. The three groups were then rotated around the three activities, of which I describe in the next few sections.

Jack’s corner

Jack had the megamap. With this she got the children to understand how soils were derived from different geology throughout the UK. A selection of rocks and soil samples were used to help show this and the children were invited to place them around the map (see picture) to see where they originate. Furthermore, the difference in climate and terrain and how this affects soil formation was discussed and similarly the children were asked to put a series of labels across the map which represented temperature and rainfall.

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Alex’s corner

Alex had the fun corner (not that the other activities weren’t fun of course!) and was perhaps the activity which the kids loved the most, and which I was most jealous of not being able to help out with. Three trays of soil, consisting of a clay loam, sandy loam and a silt were available for the children to feel and understand the different textures of soil – a soil texture chart was provided from Soil-net. However, children and mud don’t necessarily always mix and several children ended up with extremely muddy hands and faces!

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My corner

I was on the microscopes. We had three in total, two had micromorphological thin sections and the other was used to look at soil samples lifted from some of Alex’s trays. Two of the three sections represented soils from the Milton Keynes area and were of deeper soils. The other was of a topsoil. The kids were wowed by how big everything looked through the lens compared to looking at the size of the slides. However, it proved tricky when they decided to turn every dial they could find on the scopes, meaning that I was constantly re-focusing them after many little voices kept saying ‘I cant see anything’!

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Before we knew it, the afternoon was over, and the last group were leaving the classroom. All were given a soil bug to take home with them, courtesy of the British Society of Soil Science, to remind them of the day and that soils were also alive.

Soil bug

Soil bug

There was soil everywhere (see picture below), microscopes were hot from their constant use, the soil megamap was looking well used, and we looked worn out and ready to collapse. I’m not sure how teachers do this day in, day out! We sat and reflected on the days events, commenting about how brilliant the children had been and how worthwhile it had felt to be there for the day. We packed up, headed back and were treated to a hard earned ice cream from Jack.

The aftermath!

The aftermath!

I’d thought about doing schools outreach for a couple of years, however, I hadn’t known quite what to expect. Now that I’ve done it, I wouldnt hesitate to do it again. Furthermore, I’d advise and actively encourage any others thinking the same to get out there and share the knowledge that you have. Perhaps I will have inspired the next budding young scientist to get involved in the fascinating world of soil?


Author: Oliver Pritchard


Feature image: A soil bug sits on the megamap!