Terps Squeeze Out Win at National Soil Judging Championship

In a test of knowledge and grit, UMD secures fourth recent title.

April 4, 2023 Brian Needelman

The University of Maryland beat out 22 other colleges and universities from around the country to take home the top prize in the National Collegiate Soils Contest on March 31, 2023. This marks the fourth Terp victory in nine years, and sixth title overall.

Held in a different state each year, the competition tests students’ ability to accurately describe the characteristics of various layers of soil in a five-foot deep pit, known as “soil judging.” Contestants are given one hour in the pit to assess the color, consistency, and constituent elements such as sand, clay and organic matter, and then describe various properties such as the ability of the soil to transmit and retain water and support roots, infer the geological history of the site, assign the classification of the soil, and determine the potential challenges of using the soil for land uses such as building a home. 

The contest gives students an opportunity to apply their course work in a real-world environment, where the ability to understand soils is critical to industries such as construction and development, resource extraction, agriculture and environmental management. UMD has fielded a regional team since the contests began in 1961 and competed nationally 40 times.

A group of students stand in a pit evaluating soil while others stand on the edge to assist.
The Terrapin soil judgers work together to assess the soil during a heated competition. (photo: Jocelyn Wardrup)

“There is nothing better than getting the opportunity to learn about new soils and gain field experience that we can directly relate to our future careers,” said Nicole Zimmerman, a senior majoring in Environmental Science and Technology, who hopes to pursue a career in soil science consulting, particularly wetland delineation and mitigation.

“This team has made a huge difference in my senior year and I’m so proud to be a part of it," said Environmental Science and Technology major Gabriel Acevedo. “Compared to my other science classes, I like Soil Judging because instead of learning the science I’m doing the science.”

This year’s competition was hosted by Oklahoma State University. Students traveled to the semi-arid region of northwestern Oklahoma and spent four days getting accustomed to the region’s complex soils before the two-day competition. The area is home to many cattle ranches and is used for oil extraction and wind energy production, but during the competition, students were reminded that it was a region hit hard by the “Dust Bowl” from 1930 to 1936. They braved cold mornings and high winds that forced many of them to wear goggles for eye protection in the pits.

After dominating the Northeast Regional Soil Judging contest last October in Benton, Pennsylvania, the UMD team entered the nationals expecting a tough challenge from strong competing teams with more national experience. And the scores were exceptionally close, with the Terps beating out California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) at San Luis Obispo by just six points – 2428 to 2422.

The UMD team was led by the single veteran soil judger, senior Madelyn Haines, who said “Learning about soils in the classroom is one thing but traveling to different areas and successfully describing their soils is the ultimate learning experience. As a team, we’ve given our blood, sweat, and happy tears to successfully end with new knowledge and the title we’ve worked so hard for.”

“Only one of us had been to Nationals before and the students from the other schools were tough competition, so coming out on top was a huge surprise,” said junior Alex Quigley, who took fourth place in the individual competition.

The first-place victory builds upon Maryland Soil Judging’s impressive resume, with 6 National titles, 13 “Final-4” finishes at the national competition and 26 regional championships.

Members of the team include:
Environmental Science & Technology (ENST) majors: Gabriel Acevedo, Patrick Burke, David Hutch, Gina Jacob, Alex Quigley, and Nicole Zimmerman.
Environmental Science & Policy (ENSP) majors: Joshua Edelin, Madelyn Haines
Plant Sciences major: Nickolaus Kioutas
ENST doctoral student Jocelyn Wardrup and Associate Professor Brian Needelman served as the team’s coaches.