MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week our theme is Rookies. We've already talked with a rookie cop, rookie activists, even rookies in the post-high school grownup world. And in just a bit we're going to be some rookies in the world of female football. First though, we're going to turn to a different sort of competitive activity, soil judging. Never heard of it? That's all right. Neither had we until we found out that the best college soil judging team in the nation resides right here in our region.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Turns out that earlier this year a group of students from the University of Maryland nabbed the winning trophy in the National Collegiate Soil Judging contest. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
You might think of College Park, Md. as a basketball town. You could also make a case for women's lacrosse. That program has won 10 national championships. Associate professor of soil science, Brian Needelman is a bit a of a contrarian, however.
MR. BRIAN NEEDELMAN
Yeah, let me tell you, this is a soil judging town. I was also -- when I was a student at Penn State we won a national soil judging contest. And the reaction here at Maryland was at least 10 times bigger.
Needelman coached this year's soil judging team. And he's only half joking about that reaction. Upon returning from Wisconsin as victors, his team got a small parade on Maryland Day, lunch with the dean, and even a Twitter mention from Gov. Martin O'Malley.
This is a soil judging town. People may not know it, but it's true, we're pretty serious about it around here.
So what, exactly, is soil judging?
So students spend about an hour in a soil pit about 5 feet deep. The first step is to identify the different layers, what we call horizons and describe their various characteristics, color, texture, structure, or wetness features. And then it gets a lot into geology. You need to really describe the history of that site, and how the soil formed over that history.
So the name soil judging is pretty self-explanatory, but in practice, it's anything but simple. And the only way to get a sense of that is to, well, you guessed it, get your hands dirty.
Maryland senior, Ryan Adams, is taking me out to a soil pit on U.S. Department of Agriculture farmland not far from campus. This pit is where rookie team members first learn the rules of soil judging. And right now, it's full of water from recent rainstorms. So before we hop in, Adams pumps some of it out so we can actually see the dirt.
MR. RYAN ADAMS
The top is where things are decomposing, leaves are falling, carbon's kind of accumulating in this top layer, and so it has a noticeably darker color than the rest. And once you start to get down a little lower, your carbon percentages start to decrease and you start to get soils that are dominated mostly by minerals.
In competition, contestants get scored on observations just like those, and their notes are then compared to a master sheet to see how much of the essential information they got after one hour. Brian Needelman says the big difference between rookie and veteran soil judges is speed.
There's always this big difference where the rookies -- it's a huge time pressure. So there's a lot of stress involved with that.
But there's also built-in stress relief. In fact, if you need a stress ball to hold onto you just grab a hunk of clay and knead it in your hand. That's an actual soil judging technique, called texturing. An old-fashioned, but fairly full-proof way for soil judgers to tell if they're dealing with sandy, silty or clay soil, simply by feeling for the size of the particles. For Jack Wang, who started college as a biology major, the hands-on science was a change from his work in sterile laboratories.
MR. JACK WANG
When they told me, oh, yeah, you can just make a ball and then put it in your hand feel it and you can tell the percentage of clay, I was like, doesn't that take kind of years of practice or something? But I eventually got taught different techniques of detecting sand percentages and clay percentages just based on, like, experience after awhile.
And that experience comes through practice, lots of practice. The team travels to competition sites days ahead of time to get to know the region's soil characteristics before the big day.
The longest period of time is the practicing. So, for example, at the national contest, we practiced at 23 pits, before we had to do the 5 pits that were actually on the contest.
And both practice and competition happen rain or shine. In fact, in Wisconsin, at the National Collegiate Soil Judging contest students even had to contend with hail.
This started with icy rain. And we're just like, oh, yeah, it's just rain. This is Wisconsin, it's supposed to be cold. And then when it started hailing, we just started laughing. And then, you know, that was just kind of funny. It's like it cannot get any worse than this.
And of course it didn't get worse. It got a lot better. Maryland came home with the title, after all. It was Heather Hall's first year on the team.
MS. HEATHER HALL
I just was like, "I can't believe this." Like, not to be like that, but it just felt too easy. Like, for me, it just felt like, wow, I can't believe this is happening.
And Coach Needelman says he hopes the newfound attention on his team will allow more people to see why soil judging is the perfect mix of the sloppy and the scientific.
There's something about soils that when you learn a little bit about it, a lot of people go off the deep end. And end up wanting to really devote their lives, careers to it.
Ryan Adams hopes he can find a way to make it to the national soil judging contest every year, even after he graduates with his degree in environmental science. He says, believe it or not, it only takes a few dirty sessions in a soil pit before you start to see soil as something beautiful.
Ultimately, you're looking at the medium which supports terrestrial life. I mean, without soil none of that would be possible. And so if you can't find beauty in that, certainly I don't know too many other places where you would be able to find beauty. It's why we're here.
And that is the dirt on soil judging. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
If you want to get your own hands dirty, you can learn more about soil judging and soil science on our website, metroconnection.org.
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