Soil Judging Team competes in national competition

Soil Judging

Judge for yourself

“Students who place in the top 10 individuals at national soil judging typically get offered full academic scholarships for graduate study from the larger schools that use it 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.”

Ricker says anytime a house, septic system, or road is constructed you need input from a soil scientist as to what the soil will support and what mitigation is needed to accommodate a specific land use.

“In addition, most agricultural jobs in Pennsylvania are soil-based and many hiring managers look for students with soil judging experience to add to their workforce,” Ricker says. “These are some of the valuable skills and experience that EGGS majors receive by participating in soil judging.”

Matthew Ricker has quickly made a name for himself in his short time at Bloomsburg University.

The young assistant professor’s passion for soil science has become rather contagious among students in the Department of Environmental, Geographical and Geological Sciences, and his talents of soil ribboning have reached legendary status.

“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 member of BU’s 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 are a good judge of soil, among the best in the country to be exact. They proved it this past fall by winning the Northeast Regional Collegiate Soil Judging Contest at Pennsylvania State University in just the team’s second year of competition.

“My favorite aspect is being in the field and making observations,” 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.”

The winning team — BU took two teams of students to regionals — will test their talents on the national level on April 23 to 28 at Northern Illinois University, host of the National Soil Judging Contest. Joining Sullivan and O’Rourke will be fellow students Daniel Steinhauser, Morgan Sandritter, Josh Prezkop, and Eric Franz.

    Update! The team finished fifth in the nation in the group judging competition.

“Practice is definitely important, but what really 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 as an assistant coach at University of Rhode Island. “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.”

In soil judging contestants examine and denote the morphological characteristics of a soil profile using standard soil science notation, generally extending to a depth of 150 cm (4.9 ft). Characteristics found in the soil are then used to make assessments on the potential limitations to land-uses. At nationals, they will be given four practice days to examine 20 soil pits with the actual competition over the final two days.

As for BU, it will be competing against several larger schools with established soil judging programs such as University of Maryland, West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, and Kansas State. Despite the face value comparison, Ricker is confident.

“We returned three students who competed the first year, and I also actively recruited some of our brightest EGGS majors to join the team,” Ricker says. “For instance, Josh Prezkop had limited experience in soil judging, but he worked with me throughout the summer on a research project, which gave him experience describing soils in the field. To be competitive against the larger schools of the region I have to get creative and actively seek out motivated students to participate.”

Among them, O’Rourke, who discovered an added benefit to her soil judging participation.

“Soil judging is a great opportunity to gain experience working in the field independently and with other colleagues,” O’Rourke says. “Which is a great asset for any future in the environmental field.”

That was a similar objective for Sullivan, who was attracted to the team as an original member because of a desire to study soils.

“I know (a soils course) would be beneficial for my career, but the class was full,” Sullivan says. “I didn’t think (soil judging) was going to be fun at all. I sort of did it for the experience and resume purposes. I ended up having a lot of fun with it. They are now some of my best friends.”