Overcoming Challenges of the Soil Education Gap: Part 2

Leading a “soil critter” walk is an engaging way to
introduce people to soil biodiversity. Photo credit L. Byrne

By Loren B. Byrne, GSBI Education Program Coordinator, and Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI USA

This is part 2 of a 2 part series, part 1 can be read here


The world needs more citizens who are soil literate—who understand how soils and humanity depend on each other for their mutual long-term existence. The insufficiency of such understanding (at societal levels) is due, in part, to the world’s “soil education gap”—the shortage of soil education efforts relative to the scale of the societal need for them.


However, it’s not just “soil” education that is of concern; rather it’s soil education of a particular kind. In Part 1, I noted that expanded soil education efforts should focus on “soils’ biodiversity, ecological complexity, and human relationships.” In other words, the problem of the soil education gap must be remedied by helping people develop a holistic social-ecological view that emphasizes the incredibly biodiverse, life-influencing and life-influenced nature of soil systems, and how that generates ecosystem services for human well-being. (This contrasts with a view of soil as a simple, inert, cheap, limitless and dirty material, home to a few “bugs” and lots of germs, that exists for humans to dig up for our needs.) Although I am certainly not the first to emphasize this, I highlight it here as a reminder that the best soil education efforts should go beyond the definitional basics to cultivate sophisticated knowledge about the “liveliness” and positive society-related attributes of soil ecosystems (what I termed “environmental soil literacy” in a recent presentation).


Excellent efforts have been developed to increase global soil literacy, including those of the GSBI, UN-FAO, IUSS, SSSA, and USDA, among others. Hopefully these help overcome the challenge of convincing more people that social-ecological soil education should be prioritized in schools and many other settings (as discussed in Part 1).


Once soil education is prioritized, what next steps are needed? As a bold vision, I imagine a “soil education renaissance” in which many aspects of education systems, especially teachers’ training and curriculum standards, are aligned and oriented toward social-ecological soil education. In this short blog though, I will modestly address two smaller-scale efforts: 1) teacher-training programs and 2) simple actions that individuals can take. My brief comments can only introduce key ideas, and some points are primarily directed to soil ecologists and others working in educational settings. Despite this, my primary goal is to inspire all readers to think about what they might do to expand soil education in their communities, even if it’s sharing these ideas with others, supporting such actions indirectly, or teaching their own children. 

Soil organisms can be used in teaching activities that teach general concepts such as food webs. Photo courtesy of L. Byrne.

1) At the community scale, increasing soil education efforts will be facilitated by leaders who help inspire, motivate and serve as resources for other instructors. These soil education leaders—and funding agencies—should offer more professional development opportunities specifically for educators to increase their capacities for and comfort with teaching about soils. (Colorado State University provides a nice example.) Many arguments can be made for how and why soil education can be taught in diverse settings, and be used to fulfill diverse curricular needs; training opportunities can incorporate discussions of such justifications to empower educators to confidently use soils in their educational work (for more on this point see a letter in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, June 2016, V 14, pp. 238-240, pdf here).


Teacher training programs need not be enormous or onerous for the organizer(s), and they need not be held in formal conference or school settings. For example, last year I led a 2.5 hour presentation and discussion about soil biodiversity and ecology to the education staff at a local environmental organization. I shared key talking points, led simple demonstrations about soil organisms and aggregation, and engaged participants in reflection about how they could integrate soils into their existing programs. They were very grateful and I found the conversation to be rewarding. Thus, I encourage others to create similar small-scale opportunities to engage educators in their local communities.  


2) Individuals can take many (relatively) simple actions to facilitate soil education (directly and indirectly) that do not require extensive resources or planning. Here are a few examples based on my own experiences:   

  • Visit an elementary school to discuss the wonders of soil biodiversity with students—and hopefully show them living examples! I did this with second graders and was amazed at their excitement and abilities to piece together a soil formation story as I showed them leaves, mushrooms, springtails, and millipedes.
  • If you’re an educator, integrate soil biodiversity and soil-related ecosystem services into more lessons, even those for which soils aren’t the main focus. For example, I developed a teaching activity that uses soil organisms to introduce general food web concepts (downloadable here).
  • When you develop a teaching activity about soils, publish it so others can use it! The EcoEd Digital Library (where my food web activity is published) and the American Biology Teacher are examples of peer-reviewed outlets for teaching materials.
  • Buy children’s books about soil organisms and donate them to a local environmental education center, which often have very small budgets and will almost certainly be very grateful to receive such resources.
  • Offer to lead a “soil critters” nature walk or give an evening talk at a local environmental center or park. When I led such a walk, one of the participants commented that she “had no idea so many organisms live in soil!”
  • If you’re feeling more adventurous, create a soil aggregate model (see the photo) that is very effective for sparking conversation wherever it is displayed. Having students create the model is also great teaching activity. (Construction details are provided by Bruns and Byrne 2004: abstract, pdf.)

A soil aggregate model, constructed by the author’s students, was displayed in an environmental
education center to spark conversation about soils. Photo courtesy of L. Byrne.

These are only a few ideas from a much larger set of possibilities about how to help people become more soil literate. More are listed on the GSBI’s education website, which is a work in progress; if you know of other information that should be listed, please let me know. In addition, if you wish to discuss other ideas or hear more about the ideas above, please don’t hesitate to contact me (email: lbyrne“at”rwu.edu). It is only by working together and building a strong social-ecological soil education community that we can be successful in overcoming the challenges of filling in the world’s soil education gap.