Competition experience inspires team members and provides a camaraderie across disciplines
A student team from the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) took first place in the recent 58th National Collegiate Soils Contest in San Luis Obispo, California. The win builds on the college’s long history of excellence in the field of soil science and solidifies UMD’s current dynasty in the competition with three championships and one fourth place finish in the past seven years. Maryland has won the competition a total of five times.
“The Maryland ethos in soil judging is, I would say, unique,” said team coach Martin Rabenhorst, professor in Environmental Science & Technology, who first coached a Maryland soil judging team in 1983 and was a member of UMD’s first championship team in 1972 as an undergraduate. “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 3 or 4, 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.”
Team placements in the annual competitions are built on a combination of both group and individual portions, and according to team coach Martin Rabenhorst, professor in Environmental Science & Technology, strength in the individual portion of the contest was a key to the team finishing ahead of Virginia Tech (#2), the University of Nebraska (#3), North Carolina State University (#4) and Kansas State University. (#5). The top Terps among the 101 students in the individual portion were Aubrey Wiechecki in 5th place and Cathelyn Wang in 7th place.
Rabenhorst and Brian Needelman, associate professor of Environmental Science & Technology, alternate coaching the UMD soil judging team each year. Doing so, they say is both a major commitment and a privilege that 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, after students first arrive in the host state, they spend four days prior to the start of competition portion looking at practice sites that have been pre-assessed by official judges (local professional soil scientists). This 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 [this year] in California were very different than soils in Maryland,” said 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.”
The combined experience of teamwork and exposure to new soil types can translate into better job opportunities for student team members.
“You get into the pits and you get to show things off,” said Barret Wessel, an 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 percent, to get full credit. “It takes a lot of practice,” said Rabenhorst. But, he said, “They love it."
According to the coaches, during the competition different students independently said, "This is the best day of my life.’”
“And that's prior to the win even,” said Wessel. Rabenhorst added. “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 said 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,” said Wessel, noting that the field of soil science, while very specific, is pervasive and critical to environmental health.
“All of life is built upon the soils,” said 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 U.S., 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.