Kneading the soil between his thumb and forefinger, Matthew Ricker creates a ribbon three inches long. From this process, the assistant professor of environmental, geological and geographic sciences can determine how much sand and clay are in the soil.
“We need about 15 percent of clay to get a decent ribbon as students, but he can work with under 10 percent,” says Ryan Sullivan, a senior geology major and a member of the BU Soil Judging Team originated by Ricker two years ago. “He can ribbon anything. If it was straight sand he could probably work a little ribbon on that.”
And these students would know. They proved they are among the best judges of soil in the country last fall when they won the Northeast Regional Collegiate Soil Judging Contest at Pennsylvania State University in the team’s second year of competition.
In soil judging, contestants examine and denote the structural characteristics of a soil profile using standard soil science notation, generally extending to a depth of 150 cm (4.9 ft). Those soil characteristics are used to assess potential limitations on use of the land.
“Soil judging is an opportunity to gain experience working in the field independently and with other colleagues, which is a great asset for any future in the environmental field,” says Alana O’Rourke, a senior environmental geoscience major and team member. “It’s also fun to get my hands dirty once in a while.”
“Students who place in the top 10 individuals at national soil judging typically are offered full academic scholarships for graduate study from the larger schools that use the event as a recruiting ground,” Ricker says. “Soil judging is more than a competition; it is a very intense field exercise that closely relates to what soil professionals do for a living. Many students will use the experience to start their own business or go into consulting.”
This year, Bloomsburg sent a team to the national competition at Northern Illinois University in late April, where they were given four practice days to examine 20 soil pits with the actual competition over the final two days. Joining Sullivan and O’Rourke were fellow students Daniel Steinhauser, Morgan Sandritter, Josh Prezkop and Eric Franz.
“Practice is important, but what sticks with students is the way the coach conveys what they are seeing in the landscape,” says Ricker, who has been involved with soil judging since 2008. “So, I am basically telling them a complex story of how soils have formed in a given area in a way that sticks, and they will remember. It is repetition, and I am constantly updating the progress of each student to correct errors and get everyone on the same page.” •
Photos and story by Jaime North