From the ground up
Soil comes to life in the classroom of vocational agriculture teacher Marcus Lewton at South Heart High School, South Heart, North Dakota. His creative teaching tools, contained in a soil-quality tool kit, unveil to students the microscopic citizens of the soil, such as fungi and bacteria. Students also learn the critical role of all microorganisms in soil and plant health.
For high school senior Michael Zarak, whose parents farm and ranch near South Heart, learning about soil builds a foundation for the future.
“It’s important for young people to learn about soil so we will have that knowledge if we do decide to get into farming,” he says.
Zarak’s new view of soil learned from Lewton drew him to educational events where he saw the benefits of cover crops.
“I didn’t know that you could plant all this different stuff after harvesting cash crops,” he says. “I learned that all these different types of cover crops really help out the soil and make the ground more productive.”
Making the connection between healthy soil and robust crops was Lewton’s aim when he conceived the idea of creating soil-health test kits for use in vocational agricultural classrooms. Each kit contains simple tools for vo-ag teachers to use to illustrate characteristics and processes of soil.
Lewton got the idea for the kits while attending a soil-health seminar for vo-ag teachers. The seminar presenter, USDA-ARS soil microbiologist Kristine Nichols, showed participants how to use inexpensive, homemade tools to demonstrate various soil-quality aspects. She also presented instructions showing how to build the tools, how to use them, and how to interpret the results.
Drawing ideas from Nichols and other soil-health sources, Lewton designed a simple soil-health test kit for use in vo-ag classrooms. He then got a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. With help from the high school’s shop classes, Lewton and his students built 100 kits for vo-ag teachers in North Dakota and 60 kits for instructors in Minnesota.
Each kit includes PVC pipe, sponges, nitrate strips, and Styrofoam cups. Also included are instructions telling how to use the tools to demonstrate characteristics and processes of soil.