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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)!

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 we studied 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 the 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 get 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?”  to “Soil from the Trinity Nuclear Test Site will always be radioactive.”

In all, we received and tested soils from:

  • Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  • Central Park, NY
  • Dodger Stadium
  • Forks, WA (We had a Twilight fan in class!)
  • Haleakala, HI
  • Harvard Yard, MA
  • Los Angeles Coliseum, CA
  • Monticello, VA
  • Mt. Vernon, VA
  • Old North Church, MA
  • Pike’s Peak, CO
  • The Smithsonian, DC
  • Trinity Nuclear Test Site, NM
  • Very Large Antenna Array, NM
  • White Sands Missile Testing Range, NM

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!

Soil Science Lab Photos

The project evolved, and ultimately each student did the following:

  1. Learned the “Scientific Process” and proper observation and documentation methods;
  2. Performed Soil Properties Classification (all students classified all soils);
  3. Conducted Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (NPK) and pH testing;
  4. Researched what each of the above tests mean in terms of soil health;
  5. Researched the climate and geography of the region;
  6. Researched the history of the location where they received the soil;
  7. 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 were wondering, the student who analyzed the Old North Church soil (taken from the garden in between the Clough House and the Gift Shop) reports:

“The soil color was brown, granular with a coarse consistency. The Phosphorous in the soil was “high” (100+ lbs/acre), the pH was 6.5, and high amounts of Nitrogen (60+ lbs/acre). Due to a problem with the chemicals, Potassium levels were not available.”

See student’s presentation here: Soil analysis & history on ONC

Michael Torguson, Teacher
Central Medford (OR) High School