The Lay of the Land: Is Soil Science a Vanishing Skill?

Randy Miles likes to teach soil science from pits dug deep into the earth. The University of Missouri soil science professor enjoys taking his students into the field, prying clods from the pit face and showing the distribution and properties of soils across Midwestern landscapes. “It’s hard for students to understand the fundamental changes in soils over landscapes and make interpretations for land use unless they walk the land and kick the clods,” he says.

© Peter Motavalli
© Peter Motavalli

However, despite his efforts and those of other dedicated practitioners, there are fewer and fewer soil scientists with practical field experience, and that makes it harder for governments to make informed land-use decisions. According to Fred Miller, former director of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, “Soil degradation and poor soil management undermine the ecological functions that support the very essence of human well-being and sustenance.”

The number of U.S. undergraduates majoring in soil science has declined precipitously since the 1970s, and that’s a “serious problem,” says Mary Collins, president of the Soil Science Society of America. Daniel Fritton of Penn State University estimates that only a quarter to a third as many make that choice as did 25 years ago. “It is a struggle to attract students into the field,” says Fritton. Don Post, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, adds that he sees a decline in field courses, due in part to high costs and “student inconvenience.”

Couple the declining numbers of soil science graduates with the fact that 50 percent of soil scientists employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will retire in the next five to 10 years, and the problem is magnified several-fold. Bill Pauls, NRCS assistant state soil scientist for Missouri, has also observed an overall decrease in the number of field-experienced soil scientists.

As a scientific discipline, soils struggle to be seen as sexy and glamorous. But the people who love it are trying hard to change that impression. Student members of university soil-judging teams coin fun nicknames for themselves, such as “Spodalicious” and “Sexyoxide.”

Under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, Collins chairs a subcommittee to investigate trends in undergraduate soil science enrollment and explore possible changes. Additionally, universities nationwide are trying various approaches, including offering scholarships to students who study soil science; changing course lectures and field trips to address environmentally related topics; integrating new technologies (computer simulations, geographic information systems, or GIS, and remote sensing) into the classroom; creating environmental science majors that include a soil science emphasis area; and developing internship opportunities with state and federal agencies and private companies.

Fading away are the days when a stalwart soil scientist wandered through forests and fields, focusing solely on mapping uncharted soils. But modern-day soil scientists are better equipped to interpret information for improved environmental management. These new soil scientists will still need to gain practical field experience and learn from the older generation of experts. Our suggestion is to keep one hand on the keyboard and one foot in the soil pit at all times!

KEITH GOYNE is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Soil Chemistry at the University of Missouri; PETER MOTAVALLI is an Associate Professor of Soil Nutrient Management at the same school.