This past Saturday I was fortunate to be a part of the CT Envirothon Soils Workshop team coordinated by State Soil Scientist, Deb Surabian, from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Our mission was to share our soil science knowledge with the high school students and their teachers or advisors enrolled in the CT Envirothon program. Students gain an appreciation and understanding for the vital ecosystem roles soils play and learn how to classify and describe them. They will then go on and use this knowledge for the annual State Envirothon Competition to be held May 16, 2019.


CT Envirothon Banner. Photo by dmp.

For those unfamiliar with the Envirothon, it was first conceived in the late 70s in Pennsylvania by the state’s Conservation Districts. They believed in the importance of a statewide environmental program aimed at high school students and focused on key natural resources including soils, aquatics, forestry and wildlife. Within a few years, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Ohio had started Envirothon programs and the first National Envirothon Competition was held in 1988 in Pennsylvania. By the time 2000 came along, more than 40 states as well as several Canadian provinces were competing in the national contest.

Connecticut’s first statewide competition was held in 1992 and 15 schools participated. That number climbed to 46 schools in 2000 and over the past 2 years there was about 25 schools competing. Several high schools have multiple teams, however. The CT Envirothon is open to public, private, vocational and home-schooled students.

Soil pit 2018 Topsmead St Forest 2

Envirothon participants describing soil pit at 2018 CT State Envirothon Competition at Topsmead State Forest. Photo by dmp, 2018

Typically, a high school teacher, advisor or other student advocate will gather a team of 5 environmentally enthused students (plus 2 alternates). Once registered in the CT Envirothon, teams will receive study guides, curriculum materials and notice of the 4 training sessions – one on each of the natural resources areas of interest mentioned above. These training workshops are presented by professionals in their respective fields including soil scientists, wildlife ecologists, aquatics biologists, foresters and others. Both students and teachers benefit by interacting with these professionals by gaining knowledge, networking and exploring career opportunities in the natural resources fields. Students keep us professionals current (and on our toes!) and truly it is invigorating to feel that the time we take to share our knowledge is valued and will be put to good use.

The CT State Envirothon Competition is held each May in varied locations throughout the state. Teams compete in all 4 natural resources areas plus in a short oral presentation on the year’s current issue. This year’s current issue is ‘Agriculture and the Environment, Knowledge and Technology to Feed the World’. After morning competition, all gather for a luncheon cookout and then the award ceremony. Winners are announced in each of the 5 categories as well as the overall winning team who will go on to represent Connecticut in the national North American Envirothon. The winners will go up against approximately 60 teams from the U.S. and Canada and the 2019 competition will take place in Raleigh, North Carolina from July 28th through August 2nd.

This year’s Soils Workshop was held at the Tolland Agricultural Center in Vernon and consisted of 4 hands-on stations plus a presentation by USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell. Bill tackled the current issue and talked about the importance of soil health in agricultural systems and management practices like no-till, cover cropping and conservation tillage that keep our farmland soils healthy and productive.

Bill Purcell

USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell. Photo by dmp 2018

Deb Surabian was charged with familiarizing students with map reading and interpreting soil data. In recent years, the old soil survey manuals were converted into an electronic Web Soil Survey. According to the USDA NRCS, it provides access to the largest natural resource information system in the work with soil maps and corresponding data available for 95% of the counties in the U.S. at this time with a soon to be reached goal of 100%. After selecting your ‘area of interest’, one can find out information about what soil series are present in the area, their characteristics, land use suitability and more. And, there’s an App for that – free for Android or iPhones.

Deb Surabian, CT state soil scientist

Deb Surabian, USDA NRCS State Soil Scientist CT/RI demonstrating how to use the web soil survey. Photo by Jean Laughman

Retired USDA NRCS Resource Soil Scientist, Lisa Krall along with Bill Purcell brought examples of soils from both well and poorly managed fields so students could examine the difference in structure and erodibility. They created mini soil filtration systems that showed how differences in vegetative cover impact soil erosion. Many may not be aware that half the Earth’s topsoil has been lost over the past 150 years. With an ever increasing population, how will we feed ourselves without taking care of our soils? All life is dependent on the soil.

Lisa Krall & Bill Purcell soil health

Retired USDA NRCS Resource Soil Scientist, Lisa Krall & USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell exploring soil health with students. Photo by Jean Laughman

The original plan was for Jacob Isleib, USDA NRCS Soil Scientist to lead the students in a hands-on soil description in one of the soil pits on the TAC property. Because of the heavy rainfall we were experiencing this past weekend, he had to use trays of soil and soil monoliths as well as some Powerpoint illustrations, to show the students how to describe and categorize a soil. Students learned how to designate soil horizons and ascertain soil properties in order to evaluate the position of that soil series in the landscape and be able to interpret potential uses as well as limitations.

Jacob Isleib

USDA NRCS Soil Scientist, Jacob Isleib teaching Envirothon participants how to describe soils using monoliths. Photo by Jean Laughman

And me, as a UConn Assistant Extension Educator as well as a soil scientist, worked with students to practice how to assign soils colors using the Munsell Color System as well as how to hand-texture a soil. During the competitions, students will be shown a soil in a previously dug pit and need to be able to delineate the horizons and characterize them by texture and color among other properties. There are 12 textural classes according to the USDA textural triangle. The students’ favorite soil to texture is the silty clay loam because as the name implies it contains clay and therefore is moldable. It is also sticky and I lose a lot of this soil at every workshop as it sticks to everyones’ hands and ends up running down the drainpipes. Fortunately, the UConn Soil Lab, which I manage, recently received dozens of Puerto Rican soils which are mostly silty clay and clay loams so for now, the clay loam coffers are full. While many people believe they have clay soils, realistically in Connecticut they are rather rare. What people really have most of the times are compacted soils.

Dawn soil texture 2

Dawn Pettinelli reviewing how to hand texture soil. Photo by Jean Laughman

Another topic I cover is invasive earthworms. While there are no native earthworms in Connecticut as they were all wiped out by the glacier fifteen thousand or more years ago, the more recent introduction of Asian species of earthworms is a significant problem both in home gardens and forested ecosystems. Not that we can even control the invasives that are highly visible like purple loosestrife and bittersweet but students and their advisors need to know that any time a non-native species is introduced into a native ecosystem, there are consequences.


Crazy snake worm (Amynthas spp). Photo by dmp, 2018

It has been a decade since I was first invited to assist the USDA NRCS soil scientist crew with the CT Envirothon Soils Workshop. While I sometimes grumble at the early hour I need to arise on a Saturday, at the end of the day I am a happy, and sometimes humbled participant, in an effort to pass the soils torch on to the next generation of environmental professionals.

Dawn P.