Digging it: Soil Judging Team Featured in TERP

An environmental science student participates in the 2013 Northeast Regional Collegiate Soil Contest held in Frederick, Md.

Image Credit: John Consoli

February 20, 2014

Jessica Rupprecht ’14 climbs out of a 5-feet-deep pit in the woods somewhere 10 miles south of Frederick, Md. She sits on an overturned five-gallon pail, running a chunk of soil between her fingers. She presses it between her thumb and forefinger. She spritzes it with water. She scribbles on her scorecard, a small smile on her face.

This is the Northeast Regional Collegiate Soil Contest, and it’s the most unlikely Friday you never had at Maryland.

To most of us, what we plant in and build on is dirt. To a tiny subgroup of avid environmental science students such as Rupprecht, it’s soil. And it tells a complex, fascinating story.

Seven undergraduates make up Maryland’s soil-judging team, which in April will defend its third national title; it won the right to return to nationals after placing second at the regional contest in October.

“Soil is beautiful to begin with,” says Rupprecht (left). “It’s like a painting. When I go into a pit, it’s like looking at the beautiful colors that have formed over millions of years, and it’s magical, almost.”

During soil judging, students examine, describe and interpret the soil profiles and landscapes at a variety of sites. They have to identify the different horizons, or layers, which can be subtle or striking, and then they describe their properties: color, texture, structure and wetness.

The soils are the product of tens of thousands of years of biological, chemical and physical processes. One horizon in a pit might be made up of a deposit caused by a landslide 15,000 years ago. Another near the surface might have been created by soil discarded during road construction 50 years ago.

Then the students have to determine appropriate uses for the soil, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) classification scale. Is this a good place to dig a basement? Place a wastewater system? Start a farm?

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