New curriculum helps youth understand the importance of soil health

Natalie Carroll teaches Environmental Systems Management in the Agricultural Systems Management Program at Purdue University and develops natural resource curriculum for youth in grades 3-12. Through her curriculum, Carroll works to teach younger students the basics of various natural resource topics including water quality, climate change, and others, and teach older students the complexities caused by responsible and exploitative human use of our natural resources. Carroll has written or collaborated on 84 publications, including three curricula sold through the National 4-H FoundationForests of Fun, Entomology, and Weather and Climate Science – but she had yet to focus exclusively on soil health education until last year.

Carroll’s first foray into soil health curriculum came shortly after her Soil and Water Science curriculum was published in 2015. The Indiana Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) Coordinator, Roy Ballard, contacted her after seeing the curriculum to discuss using it as a springboard for soil health curriculum targeted at high school teachers.

Before beginning the development, Carroll, with the help of  Ballard, surveyed high school agricultural teachers from in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa to examine the interest and need for soil health educational programming across the region. Remarkably, 100% of survey respondents noted they would consider adding soil health information to their current courses or expand the coverage of the topic if they had additional suitable instructional materials at their disposal.  Carroll and Ballard also explored the optimal format for soil health educational curriculum, and found that 71% of respondents noted hands-on activities would be helpful, while 62% thought a mix of classroom and lab activities would be useful to their programming.  They also found that 31% of respondents thought short videos would be an ideal communication method along with online learning activities which was chosen by 29% of respondents.

Considering these findings, Carroll, with funding support from SARE, began working to develop a youth-education based soil health website. Working alongside an advisory committee, which included North Central Region Water Network Leadership Team member Walt Sell, Carroll worked to determine how best to incorporate the educational activities survey respondents indicated would enhance their soil health programming. For example, soil erosion, soil microbiology, pest management, cover crops, economics, and the importance of soil health were all indicated as important soil health subject areas.

Ultimately, the team decided to provide activities in two categories – soil basics and soil health. While the primary focus of the website is soil health, soil basic topics were included for learners who don’t have the necessary background to understand more complex soil health topics. Each topic contains a brief introduction, an experiential or hands-on activity, and a short YouTube video to introduce the topic.

A snapshot of the Purdue Soil Health website

After pilot testing the new website with teachers at a multi-state agriculture teacher conference, Carroll and the team launched the site this past September. The website, Purdue Soil Health, provides hands-on soil health educational activities for high school teachers, a photo and video library, and general information about Purdue soil health research and educational workshops.

Carroll and her collaborators hope this work will lead to an improved understanding of the importance of soil health for students and more awareness of the steps agricultural professionals, farmers and gardeners can take to achieve soil health on their lands. In turn, they hope these resources will lead to an increase in soil-friendly farming and gardening practices thereby improving environmental quality, sustainability, and efficiency.

Carroll and Sell have presented the new resource to over 675 extension staff; 40 NRCS staff, 115 agency personnel, 200 farmers/ranchers, and 30 teachers since its debut.

Natalie Carroll, Professor of Extension Education at Purdue University

Natalie Carroll is a Professor of Extension Education in the Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication Department at Purdue University. Dr. Carroll has provided project support to 428,361 Indiana 4-H youth enrolled in 10 project areas (data from Indiana 4-H Project yearly reports). She has worked directly with 11,881 youth through workshops or 4-H/FFA Career Development Events. She has written or collaborated on 84 publications and has led 493 education sessions for and 9,839 adults at Extension conferences, schools, workshops, short courses, and other organized educational venues during the 24 years that she has been at Purdue. She maintains educational websites to support 4-H project work that average 18,000 visitors /year.

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