A team of students from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point had a successful weekend at the Region III Collegiate Soil Judging Competition , qualifying for the national competition in March.
Soil and waste majors Alec Dix, Levi Campion, Dalton Larson and Jacob Schuh took third place overall at the team competition hosted by Purdue University in Columbus, Indiana. Each student also placed in the top 25 out of 54 individually, with Dix taking ninth.
The team had never competed before and was challenged to identify and record layers of soil types in pre-dug pits, before making recommendations for land use. The competition represented a real-world situation for students entering fields in soil science, water resources and waste management.
Bryant Scharenbroch, assistant professor of soil and waste resources, invited students to form a team during the start of his soil profile description writing class, an eight week upper-level course required for soil and waste majors. Scharenbroch coached the team and traveled to Columbus to support the students and help judge the contest.
“The key is to teach students to describe soils,” Scharenbroch said. “In soils it’s really tricky, there’s so many things to describe and there’s so many names.”
The events are coordinated by the American Society of Agronomy, the Soil Science Society of America and the Crop Science Society of America. A good performance at a soil judging competition could help a student land a job in their field, Scharenbroch said.
Scharenbroch said a man he knew who took sixth place at a national soil judging competition had a standing offer from the Natural Resources Conservation Service because of his success.
“This competition is king of a foot in the door for NRCS jobs,” he said. “For a lot of the field work, you have to be strong in these skills.”
Larson and Schuh said they joined the team because it was a worthwhile opportunity to get more experience in their field.
“A lot of people didn’t want to go because you had to miss class,” Larson said. “It could open up opportunities. I think it’s specifically applicable to being a certified soil tester.”
“It’s real-world stuff,” Schuh said. “If you’re good at this, you’ll pretty much have a job coming out of school.”
Pointers faced stiff competition from teams like Purdue University, University of Illinois and UW- Platteville. Working in unfamiliar soils of the region was a challenge, but their commitment to practice made a difference, they said.
Scharenbroch had students identify soils in one pit per week during his class, and even dug a pit by hand in his own backyard for the team to practice in. The group also endured early mornings to spend two full days prior to the competition working with Indiana soils, which are very different than those in Wisconsin.
The extra practice was an important part of preparing, Scharenbroch said.
“It’s a challenge, but its also an opportunity to learn,” he said. “We practiced much more than any other team that was there.”
The team owes part of it’s success to field experiences built into the degree programs. Scharenbroch noted outdoor labs and the field techniques in natural resources program as unique advantages.
“Compared to other universities, we get out in the field a lot,” Scharenbroch said. “Some of the students from Purdue, for example, have only seen soil pits in competition.”
Schuh said they saw other teams gently poking soils and carefully moving around in their pits. The Pointers were more aggressive and got to business scraping and using their hands to feel the soil’s texture, he said.
“We were just filthy,” Schuh said. “They always knew which sheets were ours because they were covered in mud.”
The atmosphere in the pits was competitive, but also fun and educational, they said. The team enjoyed watching other groups work and had the chance to spend time with other students after the activities.
The performance earned the team a spot at the national collegiate soil judging competition held in Kansas in March, which is a qualifier for the international level.
Their experience at regionals will guide the Pointers’ practice, which will be done mostly indoors in the campus soils lab. The team established their individual roles and noticed some shortcomings and areas for improvement. They learned using teamwork to cover all the classification requirements is important for success.
“About half way through the first pit we got a little flustered. We weren’t agreeing on stuff,” Schuh said. “We have to work on more of the details. We really focused on texturing.”
The team’s trip to the competition was funded by the soil and water conservation society of UWSP, and funding details for the national competition are being processed.
The group is proud of their success and looks forward to competing again, having gained experience in competition. Campion, a senior, will join the team for nationals despite graduating in December.
“It’ll be easier the second time around,” Larson said. “We’ll know what to expect.”