Virginia Tech Wins Virtual National Soil Judging Championship

The Virginia Tech Hokies Soil Judging Team finished 1st out of 21 teams at the inaugural Virtual National Soil Judging Championship held April 5-16th, 2021. The Hokies finished in first place, followed by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Utah State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and University of Minnesota. The group judging champion was Utah State University, followed by West Virginia and Virginia Tech. The top five individuals were Jagger Borth, Kansas State University; Sarah Higgins, University of Missouri; Bernie Frantz, Virginia Tech; Morgan Fabian, University of Minnesota, and Emily Yulga, University Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Virginia Tech had three in the top 8 and five of the top 13 individuals, out of 140 participants.

Photo: The Hokies practiced soil textures just before the national contest. Form left to right: Tessa Naughton-Rockwell, Michael Russell, Alex Greehan, Bernie Frantz, Kathlynn Lewis, and Clare Tallamy. Not present: Lisa Small. 

 The contest organizers were Bryant Scharenbroch of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, John Galbraith of Virginia Tech, John Lawley of Utah State, Chris Baxter of Wisconsin-Platteville, and Kris Osterloh of South Dakota State, and awards were sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America.

According to coach Galbraith, “This virtual contest was a huge success because it allowed us to have some continuity in teaching students and keeping the soil judging clubs and teams active during the pandemic. The contest was created because the organizers did not allow the pandemic to deny a whole set of students to miss out on the learning opportunity provided by soil judging.”  

Bernie Frantz is a Sophomore from Shavertown PA majoring in Crop and Soil Science. Finishing 6th was Alex Greehan a Junior from McLean, VA majoring in Mechanical Engineering. In 8th place was Clare Tallamy, a Sophomore from Leesburg, VA majoring in Environmental Science. In 11th place was Kathlynn Lewis, a graduating Senior from Charlottesville, VA majoring in Environmental Science. In 13th place was Michael Russell, a graduating Senior from Richmond, VA majoring in Environmental Science. Lisa Small, a Freshman Engineering major from Williamsburg, VA finished 25th and Tessa Naughton-Rockwell was 45th. Tessa is a Junior Crop and Soil Science major from Alexandria, VA.

All of the Hokies placed in the top one-third of the participants. This is the sixth national championship for Virginia Tech, second most of any school.  The Hokies practiced in the field and the soils lab whenever possible, wearing masks and staying apart. “This contest was challenging because the students had to learn about a wide variety of soils that formed in very different conditions – from the tropics and the desert to the Arctic. The practices covered almost all soil types on Earth, and so was a very comprehensive study in soil genesis, chemistry, morphology, and classification. The study really supplements what they learned in other classes,” according to coaches Jaclyn Fiola and John Galbraith.

Official practice for the contest consisted of 22 practice soil descriptions representing 11 of the 12 soil orders, 12 texture samples with known sand, silt, and clay content supplied by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and 20 multiple choice questions about soil features and landscapes. In the description portion, students were required to name horizons, calculate textures, and answer questions about soil and site properties, soil classification, and suitabilities and limitations for specified uses such as building development, agronomy, and wetlands.

The contest had both individual and group parts. The students were given three hours to complete three descriptions by themselves, then given 20 minutes each to complete 2 more as a group. Students did five soil textures as individuals and three more as a group, given 10 minutes for each sample. The feature and landscape identification had 20 questions for individuals and 20 more for the group that had to be answered in 20 minutes each. The students practiced twice per week in the classroom and the field, and had homework assignments weekly.

The coaches added that “These students have not even had the opportunity to see any of the practice or contest soils in person. But their hard work and great cooperation and teamwork earned them the national title. They earned it; they deserve the title of champions.” The contest will very likely continue to be offered even after the in-person contests begin again this fall, because it offers a unique learning opportunity to all students at all colleges and universities, not just the ones with established soil judging teams, according to Dr. Galbraith. The learning materials are free and the organizers welcome them to be used in college classes as well.

  • provided by Dr. John Galbraith