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Soil Scientists finish in Not-First Place at Westphalia ISD Career Day

story by Carlos J. Villarreal and Richard M. Reid

Students learn about the different particle sizes and textures of soil.Take a moment to reflect on your childhood. Where were you when you first heard about how soil is formed or why conservation of natural resources is important? For Westphalia ISD students, their time arrived the last week of October, when two Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil scientists were invited to participate in career day.

Richard Reid and Carlos Villarreal, soil scientists with the NRCS Bryan Soil Survey office who have 16 years of combined experience, were up against stiff competition for the “coolest job” at career day as firefighters, professional baseball players, and helicopter pilots also participated in the event. The audience included students from kindergarten through 8th grade.

The NRCS presentation began with a question and answer session about why soil is important. Some of the reasons the students gave were the same reasons the NRCS was founded - such as reducing soil erosion, conserving natural resources, and improving soil health. Eyes lit up with excitement when the younger groups of children followed the life cycle of a piece of paper from their classroom, to the forest trees the paper was made from, to the tree roots which at one time grew in a healthy soil.

Students had the opportunity to feel the different particle sizes and textures that make up soil, sand, silt, and clay. To the dismay of the teachers, everyone jumped at the opportunity to get their hands and clothes muddy. Words such as “gritty,” “smooth,” and “sticky” were used to describe the different soils.

NRCS soil scientists discuss the tools they use for collecting soil samples.The soil scientists also demonstrated how they collect data, in a short amount of time, utilizing their truck-mounted hydraulic soil probe. Rather than dig a hole to view the soil by hand, the probe can extend 80 inches into the ground to collect a 2-inch diameter core sample. Given the excited reaction of the students, the scientists were definitely in the running for the “coolest job” when they demonstrated their tablet computer data collectors. This technology allows the user instant access to a catalog of spatial data, site-specific soil interpretations, and soil maps. In recent years, soil survey members have been updating soil maps to alleviate political boundaries, increase accuracy of interpretations, and streamline conservation delivery.

As the students learned how to stop, drop, and roll, played catch with a real life professional baseball player, and sat in the cockpit of a Life Flight helicopter, the scientists maintained that none of these professions would be possible without healthy soil and natural resource conservation. For instance, there would be no water to put out the blazing flames of a house fire. Or, they asked, “When was the last time you went to the ballpark and didn’t see a healthy turf of grass on the field?,” adding that the millions of metal pieces that make up the machinery of a helicopter are protected underground by soil surfaces.

Although Reid and Villarreal may not have finished first in the “coolest job” race, the students left the day with a better understanding of the beauty of nature and how some folks are lucky enough to make it their career.