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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 health can be a boring
subject for high school students,” Lewton says. “But this kit makes it more

One test, the Soil Clod
Test, demonstrates differences in the aggregate formation of soil that is
stable vs. soil that easily falls apart.

Students drop clods of soil
into jars of water and note its response to water and gentle shaking. This
invites discussion of how soil structure impacts soil functions such as air and
water flow, biological activity in soil, and nutrient cycling.

To demonstrate
water-infiltration differences among soils and to link these to management
practices, Lewton’s students take soil samples from a pasture, a no-till field,
and a field in a fallow-crop rotation.

“We put each soil sample in
a 5-ounce cup, filling each cup to the same level,” Lewton says. “We then drop
equal amounts of water in each cup and watch the water infiltrate the soil. The
water in the pasture sample always soaks in faster than the water in the other
soil samples.”


Adding an element of
competition makes the lesson more interesting and further illustrates
differences in water-infiltration capabilities of soil. The game involves
predicting which of two soil samples has the best water infiltration. One of
the soil samples comes from clay-based pasture hills and the other comes from a
heavily tilled garden.

“The students usually
predict the garden soil will win. But the clay soil from the pasture always
wins,” Lewton says. “The game breaks down stereotypes that kids have about soil
and shows the effect tillage can have on water infiltration.”

As vo-ag teachers put
Lewton’s soil-health test kits to work in their classrooms, students across
North Dakota and Minnesota will learn similar lessons about soil quality.

“These kids are the farmers
of the future,” Lewton says. “By teaching them about soil health and soil
quality, we’re giving them the tools they need to make choices that will
improve the sustainability of their land.”

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Marcus Lewton

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