UMD Leads the Way in Soil Science, Adding a Fifth National Championship to their Dynasty in Soil Judging

Team provides an inspiring experience for students with a unique sense of camaraderie across disciplines

Image Credit: UMD Soil Judging

May 1, 2019 Samantha Watters

The University of Maryland (UMD) took 1st place at the 59th National Collegiate Soils Contest in San Luis Obispo, California, competing against 25 other universities from 7 different regions across the country. This is the fifth National Championship for the UMD Soil Judging Team (the third in the last seven years), solidifying a dynasty in the field of soil science, with our team regularly finishing in the top four in the country and even coaching at the International Soil Judging Contest last August in Brazil. Coach Martin Rabenhorst, professor in Environmental Science & Technology, led the winning team this year, and was also a member of the original winning team in 1972 as an undergraduate at UMD. But what is it about soil judging that hooks students and professors alike? At Maryland, Rabenhorst thinks it’s the camaraderie.

“The Maryland ethos in soil judging is, I would say, unique,” says Rabenhorst. “The university itself is pretty diverse, and the members of the soil judging team tend to represent a pretty diverse cross-section of students. And yet, the team seems to be very embracing of each other. We were out there with 25 other universities, and the team spirit and general affection for one another that UMD has is unusual. Maryland’s group judging has been regularly in the top three or four, and I think a lot of this has to do with the camaraderie and team working well together. You have to be able to work together as a team, and the terp soil judgers tend to do that well.”

Teamwork seems very necessary given the intensity of the competition. Brian Needelman, associate professor with Environmental Science & Technology, and 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. In soil judging competitions, students first arrive in a new state and spend four days looking at practice sites that have been pre-assessed by the official judges (local professional soil scientists), which helps them learn about the soils in a new area. During the official competition, students have an hour to characterize each new five-foot-deep pit, identifying and describing the characteristics of the layers, classification, and development processes of the soil, its ability to transmit and retain water and support plants, the geological history of the site itself, and potential challenges for various land uses.

“Soils we saw in California were very different than soils in Maryland,” says Rabenhorst. “Different climate, geology - a lot of our students saw a number of soil orders they had never seen before. That’s one of the real positives of this process -- that it exposes students to new soils and different ways of assessing soils across different regions. They are increasing the size of their ‘soil universe,’ traveling and seeing many different soils across the country.”

This translates to better job opportunities for the students involved, in addition to the experience of working together. “You get into the pits and you get to show things off,” says Barret Wessel, assistant coach and doctoral candidate in Environmental Science & Technology. “There are certain soil features you can’t get in another class - you have to be in the pit to observe.” Rabenhorst adds, “With field skills you learn through mentoring. This is why we have employers who are specifically looking for students that have soil judging experience, because they know that they’ve got these field skills.”

And these are very specific skills that are valuable in the world of soil science. For example, students need to be able to feel for clay and sand, estimating the percent of sand, silt, and clay for each soil just by feel within 5% to get full credit. “It takes a lot of practice,” says Rabenhorst.

But, as Rabenhorst says, “They love it. There were a handful of students last week who independently said ‘This is the best day of my life.’” “And that's prior to the win even,” adds Wessel. “Right!” says Rabenhorst. “They often say, ‘This was the most significant thing in my college experience.’ That comes partly from what they’ve learned, but also from this positive team experience and camaraderie.”

Wessel is studying soils for his doctoral work, and he couldn’t imagine doing something different. “I have been interested in soil science since I was a little kid helping my mom garden and flipping over rocks, collecting bugs and worms,” says Wessel. And the field of soil science, while very specific, is pervasive and critical to environmental health.

“All of life is built upon the soils,” says Rabenhorst. “All the food we eat, all the fibers that go into clothing, many building materials, water and the quality of what we drink, all of those things are related to the soils. And there are literally 25,000 different types of soils mapped in the US, and recognizing the ecosystem services provided by different soils and landscapes helps you to be a good steward of the land.”

Maryland will be hosting the regional Soil Judging Competition this coming fall, and Rabenhorst and Wessel are both excited to showcase some of the unique properties in Maryland’s soils with a new team of soil judgers.