Last week, six Cal Poly students and one faculty left the warmth and sunshine of California to compete at the National Collegiate Soils Competition in Wisconson. The contest is sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America and was hosted this year by the University of Wisconsin Platteville. This year, 23 teams from across the nation came together to compete for the title of National Collegiate Soils Champions.
The Cal Poly team is composed of Jason DeMoss, Laurie Fraiser, Katie Grosssmith, Yamina Pressler and Max Ross, along with graduate student Ariel Namm and advisor Dr. Karen Vaughan. The team spent six days in the area of Wisconsin known as the Driftless Region for its unique lack of glaciation during the last major ice age. The first four days were spent traveling to various official practice pits around the area to familiarize themselves with local soils, which are often radically different from the soil found on California’s Central Coast.
“I had never been exposed to a bright redish pink Lacustrine (lake) deposit parent material, loess plains, glacial outwash, or pedisediment,” Pressler said. “One soil even had buried metal wires that were classified as Human Transported Material. The diversity of the soils we were exposed to was beyond anything any of us expected.”
The last two days were dedicated to individual and team portions of the competition respectively. For the individual portion four members from each of the 23 schools were put into a rotation: one member to each of the three soil pits to be judged and one to the rest area. At each station students had one hour to describe and classify every aspect of the soil from texture to land use.
“We jump into a big hole and have 50 to 60 minutes to infer a whole bunch of characteristics about that particular soil,” Fraiser said. “Not only do we have to figure out things like texture and structure, we look at things that will tell us about land use. For example, redoximorphic features show us how high a water table would be (important for crops, septic tanks, etc.). Bedrock depth tells us what kind of buildings could be built and surface runoff rate helps us find how easily a soil would erode.”
The team portion of the contest, like the individual portion, offered different soils to be judged. This time each team tackled two different pits. Each school could have as many team members assist as they wanted, so every one could experience the judging process.
“The great part of the team portion is that no one gets left out,” Dr. Vaughan said. “One school had 13 team members in the soil pits at once.”
In the end, when all of the scores were totaled up, the Cal Poly team took tenth place out of the 23 teams. The team was pleased with this result because they had not spent much time with the contest material prior to competing. In the end though the contest wasn’t about who took home the trophy, but about the valuable real life skills the students gained and the connections they made.
“Soil judging is such a unique collegiate experience because there is really nothing quite like it in the college world that I’ve seen,” Jason DeMoss said. “The good mix of education, socialization, exploration and realization is something that is unique to the NCSC experience. It is so amazing to think that at the banquet there truly is no other time in which you will find so many college-aged people that care, love, and know so much about soil. The people you meet at the NCSC truly are the foundation to “America’s (even the world’s) Future.”