By Julia L. Stevens, Ph.D.

This is part two of a three-part series exploring the importance of nutrient-rich and stable soil. This is a guest post written by Julian L. Stevens, Ph.D. with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Julia L. Stevens, Ph.D.
Julia L. Stevens, Ph.D.

Walking into a sixth grade classroom as a soil microbiology researcher, I asked the students: “What do you think of soil?” Responses were varied, including everything from “it’s dirty” to “where plants grow.” Next, I ask “why is it important?” And, I hear nothing but proverbial crickets. We had quite a lot of work ahead of us.

My position at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences takes current, ongoing research projects into middle school classrooms. The goal of the Students Discover project is to bring science alive for students. No longer just reading about science in textbooks and conducting canned experiments, the approximately 1,000 North Carolina students that have participated in my research, “Symbiosis in the Soil,” contribute real data to my research.

“Symbiosis in the Soil” investigates the important interactions between plants and the soil microorganisms living in close proximity to the plant rhizosphere. These relationships confer pest resistance, pathogen resistance and growth promotion from microbe to plant. Targeting these benefits, we can begin to tie the living component of soil to the success of plants. To do this, we are particularly interested in the microbes associated with the most successful plants on the planet, invasive weeds. Therefore, our students collect plants and characterize the bacteria and fungi from the rhizosphere and report the microbial diversity back to me. Using this classroom-based Citizen Science, I can now analyze plant rhizosphere microbial diversity from throughout the state.

“I think a lot of students are unaware of the world around them, partly because they don’t play outside anymore,” says Lianna Gohmann, seventh grade science teacher at Valley Springs Middle School in Arden, NC. “Many of our students lack social skills because they play video games with their friends, instead of making mud pies. Students have trouble communicating with each other, and they are afraid of being outdoors with all of the bugs! There is a lack of empathy in our classrooms, which cause students to care less about how other people feel and how their actions impact the world around them.”

Students working on research for the project.

This project addresses classroom needs to engage students with current research, and after students have participated in Students Discover’s “Symbiosis in the Soil,” we see an increased interest in science and soil in particular.

“Students were able to connect what they were doing in the classroom to the real world instead of simply collecting data in their science notebook…and, in turn, made them more interested in becoming good stewards themselves,” says Laura Cochrane, sixth grade science teacher at Mills Park Middle School in Cary, NC.

By implementing Citizen Science lesson plans into middle school curriculum, we are assuring that all student demographics are being exposed to real scientific research. In fact, more than 25 percent of students that have participated in the soil research project are underrepresented minorities in the STEM field, opening the door to soil research beyond just a select few.

For an introduction to the importance of soil, check out part one in our series.