Soil! (2 of 2)

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Students will be able to 1) deliver a presentation about soil; 2) observe soil characteristics in a field study environment; and 3) demonstrate understanding of soil through a short essay or infographic assessment

Big Idea

Soil is an essential component of sustainable food systems. How might we improve our understanding of the role of soil in healthy ecosystems in order to identify soil problems that we can solve through purposeful design?

FRAME: Soil in context

In the previous lesson, students developed a broad understanding of soil.  They explored the relationship between humans and soil as well as some of the important characteristics of soil.  Making meaning of new content was the primary purpose.

In this lesson, students formally present their understanding of soil to an audience and also extend their understanding through observation of the fieldwork of a PhD Dartmouth student in New Hampshire.  Finally, students will apply their understanding of soil to either an infographic or essay assignment.  

This series of lessons should ideally position students to be successful with the sustainable farm design project.  Students should be able to articulate the importance of soil, identify factors that lead to poor soil health, and construct evidence-based arguments in favor of rehabilitating unhealthy soil.  As noted in the previous lesson FRAME, there is a lot of technical information that can sidetrack students from these three goals.  Teachers will need to keep this big picture in mind as students navigate through the tasks in this section.  The description of soil as layers, for instance, can distract students from the more important idea--at least for this class--that it is vital to protect the integrity of the topsoil layer for sustainable agriculture.

By the end of this lesson sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. explain the relationship between “soil” and humans
  2. describe some characteristics of soil
  3. develop a short presentation about a selected soil topic
  4. observe soil characteristics in a field study environment
  5. demonstrate understanding of soil through a short essay or infographic assessment

CONTENT IDEAS: For teachers that want to dive deeper into soil, here is an extremely helpful resource.

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached activity guide is prototype that can be modified for students engaging in the activities for both lessons.


FLIPPED: Digging

What is the purpose of this section?

Students have the opportunity to preview the main ideas that they will learn about during student presentations.  This previewing ensures that students will be able to engage with peers’ presentations as involved, informed participants.  By the end of this activity, students should be familiar with some of the specialized vocabulary that they will hear during short presentations.

What will the students do?

Students will watch this presentation from a Dartmouth MOOC.  They will develop short responses to the following questions:

  1. What is ONE thing you learned about soil?
  2. Why do you think healthy soil is an important part of healthy ecosystems?
  3. What is one question you have about soil?

What will the teacher do?

This activity requires student accountability to be successful.  To this end, the teacher should collect and assess responses, preferably digitally, as an additional incentive for students to engage with this content prior to class.  Because the goal of this activity is to spur students to begin thinking about soil, a simple check for completion and effort is sufficient as assessment.  One option is an online discussion.


EXPLAIN (2 of 2): Student presentations

35 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students continue to make meaning of content through the development of a short public presentation.  Students have just completed similar work in “Does McDonalds Have A Farm?” As with that lesson sequence, the emphasis on public presentation in the lesson supports students’ continued growth as effective communicators.   Students practice Common Core aligned speaking and listening skills (link) through public presentation; and they do so to meet the larger goal of becoming agents of change within the local community.  To support this work, the teacher has an opportunity to direct student efforts towards individualized presentation goals.   What do students understand about their chosen content?  Which speaking and listening skills do students need to improve?  The formative assessment data from this work will drive students’ goals for the next public presentation in the iFarm DESIGN CHALLENGE.

What will the students do?

Students will first work in the same groups from the previous lesson to develop presentations for flash publication.  Presentations will again retain the previous format:

  1. The presentation must begin with context.  Why does this topic matter?
  2. The presentation must include a focus question.  What is the most important question to be able to answer about this topic?
  3. The presentation must include an evidence-based response to this focus question.  What information do I need to be able to answer the focus question?
  4. The presentation must have at least one visual that helps learners understand content presented.  How might we use visualization to teach content in a way that verbal statements cannot?

Students should be very familiar with this format at this point in the unit.  This familiarity will free energy for students to focus and the "how" of presentations; the "what" is taken care of by this presentation protocol.  For many students, a presentation focus is the purposeful development of impactful visuals.

While student groups present, audience members record notes.  (See the prototype activity guide for reference.) What is the main idea of this presentation?  What evidence does this group provide to support the main idea?  Because students have just engaged in an intense presentation and feedback cycle in the "Does McDonalds Have a Farm?" Ag Symposium activity, there will be no student feedback debrief.  The teacher handles all feedback to presenting students; this is not ideal but it is the pragmatic choice given time constraints of this course.  

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will support student presentation development.  This might mean that the teacher helps groups norm understanding of source material; a teacher should have differentiated texts, videos, pictures, and so forth, if a class is herterogenous with a wide range of student needs. Otherwise, the key teacher move here is to check in with every student in the class to briefly discuss presentation goals.  (The Common Core provides some examples; these need to be operationalized for individual students.) What do students want to accomplish?  What will success look like?  What kind of feedback will be most valuable?


EXTENSION: Virtual fieldwork

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students have an opportunity to observe a graduate student and scientist work with soil in the field. Specifically, students will look at the various horizons in a sample. The teacher is able to support students’ extended understanding of content from the student presentations.  By the end of this section, students should have a real world example of the study of soil in the field.  While it would be ideal to conduct more fieldwork, it is not always possible to do so.  In the absence of fieldwork opportunities, virtual observation always students to at least shadow practicing field scientists.

What will the students do?

Students will explore soil horizons through a video conversation between two scientists conducting fieldwork.  These scientists will explore the following:

  • Soils in the landscape
  • The different soil horizons in a Spodosol
  • Evidence of various soil-forming processes 

As students watch, they will note any new ideas that learn.  Students will also answer these summary question: How do you think this soil that we might find on a farm?  How do you think agriculture impact this type of soil?  Which layers are most important to preserve?  Why?

What will the teacher do?

The naming conventions for soil can be confusing to students.  As such the the key teacher move in this section will be redirecting students' focus to the summary questions.  These are the "big idea" questions that push students to compare natural soil with agricultural soil.  Can they accurately conjecture that topsoil is important and that agriculture disrupts that natural processes that concentrate organic matter in soil horizons?

TIMING NOTE: This activity should be considered "enrichment" for most classes.  Completing this activity should come at the cost of reduced time for students' presentations.

EVALUATION: Infographics

5 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students are able to apply content knowledge to an infographic assignment.  Students will revise an existing infographic model of New York soil.  Because so much of the soil content was learned through interaction with visuals, students have an opportunity to create visuals that accurately capture their understanding of soil.  Students also peer review work and revise work products based on peer review. This assessment essentially asks students to revise a model of the soil system; this is on of the skills emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards crosscutting concepts.

What will the students do?

First, students access a list of state soils developed by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and choose one to work on for this assessment.  Then students learn about the expectations for this assignment through a teacher-centered explanation.  The teacher displays the model for New York (Honeoye), points out feature of the model, and explains that this assessment will require students to further develop this model to incorporate at least THREE main ideas from the "Soil!" lessons.  Ideas from the student presentations will work the best.  The primary student move for this assessment is to change the provided informational poster into an infographic.  An infographic is essentially an informational poster that makes a claim using evidence.  

By way of illustration, the teacher will faciliatate a brief discussion of the differences between the provide New York Honeoye poster and a model soil infographic.  What does the infographic do that the Honeoye poster does not? Students are encouraged to create an infographic that makes a claim about soil horizons, soil degradation, and modern agriculture.

Outside of class, students are expected to have two peers review their draft infographics and provide warm and cool feedback.  Students then revise infographics based on this feedback.   What works?  What doesn’t work? All students use a simple rubric to give and receive feedback. (The peer feedback form and the rubric for this activity are at the end of the prototype activity guide.)

What will the teacher do?

The teacher presents this assignemnt and walks through the model and expectations.  As this is the first work with infographics in this class, the rubric is simple.  If the class finds this work to be engaging, the teacher can incorporate more work with data visualization as the year progresses.  See both reflections for ideas to build out infographic competency or provide an alternate assessment.

Such a move aligns with the data visualization emphasis of the NGSS and can be another way for students that struggle with writing to engage with materials and make evidence-based claims.  However, this work can be complex and challenging for students.  See the reflection for ideas to support this work.  The important outcome is that students are able to craft an original expression of their understanding of soil.  What is the relationship between soil and humans?  How can we protect soil?  Why should we protect soil?  In this sense, the infographic is essentially a visual essay that uses evidence to support claims.  Students will dive even deeper into components of soil during the nitrogen DESIGN LAB experience.  Understanding the importance of healthy soil for environemntal health, therefore, is necessary context for success with this learning experience.