Kristopher Osterloh, earth science senior and rugby player, understands why the rugby fields at Cal Poly flood when it rains. He doesn’t understand why the university chose to put the fields on clay.
“Soil is so common yet no one gets it,” Osterloh said. “Water doesn’t go through clay very fast.”
Osterloh and his teammates are on the Cal Poly Soil Judging Team and are studying soil and its characteristics to prepare for the National Collegiate Soil Judging Contest. The students understand soil is a valuable resource and strive to use it efficiently, despite the carelessness of others.
“It’s important to know how rainwater will affect soil, how roads should be built on it, how many nutrients it has for crops or gardening,” Osterloh said.
The national contest — held in a new location each year — takes place in Bend, Ore. Students will study soil throughout the region in April, representing Cal Poly among the top soil science departments in the nation.
The students spend two days practicing before two days of competition. They judge two sites individually one day, then three sites as a team the next. They have one hour at each site to examine soil and describe its qualities on a scorecard. The top individual, team and overall school performances will receive trophies at the end of the contest.
“It gives students exposure to soil in different regions with different geology, climate and vegetation,” said Thomas Rice, the team adviser. “There’s no way you could do that in a class.”
Rice was a soil judging undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1970s, and has coached the team at Cal Poly off and on since 1981. Soil judging led Rice to a career in education, but some of his former students have gone on to hold jobs in government, science and environmental consulting.
“When faculty are contacted, it’s something many employers ask for specifically,” Rice said. “If it’s on their résumé it definitely gives them an advantage.”
All five students on the team this year are seniors seeking soil-related careers upon graduation. They have taken many of their soil science classes at Cal Poly together, and are members of the Earth, Soil, & Water Conservation Club.
Soil science senior and president of the club, Crystal Thoin, is one of two students who competed in last year’s contest and does not expect team conflict to be an issue during competition.
“Every night we usually get together and study,” Thoin said. “We’re all really on the same page at the end of it.”
Professors from participating schools will act as official judges of the students’ judging quality of the soil at the national contest. They score competitors based on the accuracy of their scorecard, which evaluates such qualities as the color, texture and structure of each soil. Another section requires that students classify each soil into one of the 12 U.S. classifications such as alfisols, andisols and aridisols, all of which are found in Bend.
Students must also assess each soil’s utility in real-world applications such as septic tank absorption and construction. They will look to apply this skill beyond the classroom, where soil is poorly understood, said soil science senior Michael Wallace.
“Entire civilizations have failed because they couldn’t take care of their land,” Wallace said.
This article was written by Brent Lowrey