Digging Deeper: Making Cross-Curricular Connections
We are kicking off the start of the new school year with a guest blog post by Michael Torguson, a teacher in Medford, Oregon who spent the summer teaching school at a juvenile detention facility. He used soil as a jumping off point for his students to study the science, history and geography of locations across the globe, widening their world.
Teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Teaching summer school at a juvenile detention facility, the challenge gets kicked up a notch (or two!).
When I asked the kids what they wanted to learn over the summer, they said they wanted to learn botany. So we did the usual: planted an herb garden, studied water ecology and how pollution affects the land (and by extension, plants), and the properties of soil. In a regular school setting, the usual procedure would be for students to scatter around the school grounds, locate their patch of soil, mark it on a school map, and do their analysis.
But how do you teach soil and plant biology when students cannot leave the building? Answer: bring the soil from outside . . . in. I was originally going to take a weekend, drive around town, and collect soil from different areas. Then I had an idea: why not collect soil from all over the country? I reached out to various “famous places” and requested soil from their grounds for the kids to analyze. I got some very interesting responses, from “This is unprecedented!” to “You just want … dirt?”
I also got some happily unexpected responses, from “Soil from the Trinity Nuclear Test Site will always be radioactive” to the one from my new friend, Smithsonian Gardens’ own Supervisory Horticulturist Brett McNish. McNish said he did a similar project a while back and offered to send some soil that he was able to collect from overseas. So Brett sent me soil from the U. S. Embassy Grounds in Kabul, a Forward Operating Base in Iraq, sand from Omaha Beach, as well as from the garden near the National Museum of the American Indian.
In all, we received and tested soils from:
- Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
- Central Park, New York
- Dodger Stadium, California
- Forks, Washington (We had a Twilight fan in class!)
- Haleakala, Hawaii
- Harvard Yard, Massachusetts
- Los Angeles Coliseum, California
- Monticello, Virginia
- Mt. Vernon, Virginia
- Old North Church, Massachusetts
- Pike’s Peak, Colorado
- The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- Trinity Nuclear Test Site, New Mexico
- Very Large Antenna Array, New Mexico
- White Sands Missile Testing Range, New Mexico
A Social Studies teacher by training (and excitable by nature), I decided not to limit the science project just to science; I decided to add geography and history to the mix. The project was getting really interesting!
The project evolved, and ultimately each student:
- Learned the Scientific Method and proper observation and documentation methods;
- Performed Soil Properties Classification (all students classified all soils);
- Conducted Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (NPK) and pH testing;
- Researched what each of the above tests mean in terms of soil health;
- Researched the climate and geography of the region;
- Researched the history of the location where they received the soil;
- Created and presented their report to the class.
Best of all, the students rose to the challenge! Not only did they follow correct analysis procedures, but they also wrote very good historical and scientific summaries. As a bonus, they got to keep their dirt as a souvenir. (Except for the Trinity Soil – I didn’t want to have to answer questions about why I was giving radioactive material to students!)
In the end, the students had fun, learned a few things, and got to “visit” places they otherwise would not have been able to go. I also learned an important lesson about creatively teaching across the curriculum.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the student who analyzed the Smithsonian soil reports that:
“The soil was dark brown, with lots of small roots. It was rich and healthy. The Phosphorous level was low (0-50lb/acre), there were trace amounts of Nitrogen and Potassium, and the pH level is 7.0.”
-Michael Torguson. During school year Michael is a substitute teacher at Central Medford High School in Medford, Oregon.