College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

UMD Coaches Help Lead Team USA to an “Olympic” Win in International Soil Judging

UMD continues a legacy in soil judging, setting the pace for international soil science
Needelman and Mack at International Soil Judging Contest
UMD Coaches Needelman and Mack at the International Soil Judging Contest in Brazil
Image Credit: 
Andrew Sherfy, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Team USA took first place in the Third International Soil Judging Contest this August in Brazil, with UMD coaches front and center to help lead the team to victory. Taking place every four years in true Olympic fashion, the competition was hosted by the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro and the Brazilian Soil Science Society. UMD placed in the final four this year at the USA National Soil Judging Competition, prompting an invitation for Associate Professor Brian Needelman of the UMD Department of Environmental Science and Technology to join qualifying coaches Andrew Sherfy of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and John Galbraith of Virginia Tech at the international contest. Needelman served as associate coach, contest organizer, and instructor. Sara Mack, MS from the same department at UMD, and Erin Bush, MS from Kansas State University, both represented team USA as assistant coaches and contest volunteers. These select coaches came from only four different US academic institutions, showcasing UMD’s leadership in the field of soil science.

Needelman and Galbraith coached together as the only two coaches in the USA to win national championships in soil judging at multiple academic institutions in their careers. Needelman is a two-time USA national champion coach, and Mack has been an assistant coach on a USA national champion team from UMD.

"I was amazed to see how soil judging has taken off internationally, and very excited to represent UMD as a leader in soil judging and help facilitate the growth of the sport," says Needelman. “In international soil judging, you often have US undergraduate students competing against international graduate students, so it is even more impressive.”

In soil judging competitions, students spend an hour in a 5-foot-deep pit describing the characteristics of the layers, classification, and development processes of the soil, its ability to transmit and retain water and support roots, the geological history of the site itself, and potential challenges for various land uses.

UMD students have a history of excellence in soil judging, winning four separate national championships and consistently placing in the top four in the country. Team USA at the international competition was made up of the top students and coaches from all over the country.

“Being invited as an assistant coach on the international level is truly an honor,” says Mack. “I feel incredibly blessed and grateful for this opportunity, and all the opportunities soil judging has opened up for me thus far in my life. To compete and represent the soil science discipline as America does it feels so surreal.”

Needelman and Professor Martin Rabenhorst trade off coaching the soil judging team at UMD each year, which is both a major commitment and privilege. This involves teaching a class, as well as coaching and mentoring students through late night studying and early morning treks out to practice pits.

“Most students say that soil judging is not just their favorite class, but their favorite part of the undergraduate experience,” says Needelman. “As a coach, we aren’t writing the test. We are completely there for the students, and it creates a totally different sense of camaraderie. Seeing them outside of just academics and in a competitive setting - there is really nothing like it.”

At the international contest, teams from Brazil, Australia, Spain, Taiwan, Mexico, Russia, United Kingdom, Korea, and South Africa all competed against team USA for the championship. Leaders in soil science from around the world came together to compete and share ideas to advance the international field of soil science and appreciate the sport of soil judging, with team USA and UMD coaches leading the way.

“Watching students and coaches come together and twist their minds in ways they normally wouldn’t is always something I’ve loved about soil judging. It’s very complicated and takes a lot of scientific knowledge as well as some natural skill and intuition - there is a real art to it. But to see that in an international setting with international students and coaches from all different countries and perspectives was really amazing,” recalls Needelman. “It gave me goosebumps.”

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