Monday, August 17, 2009

Go underground with Dr. Dirt

They call her Dr. Dirt. It should be Dr. Soil. The distinction is important, says Professor Joan Davenport, a soils scientist at Washington State University. “You must know the difference between soils and dirt before you earn the right to malign soils by calling them dirt.”

Certainly no one wishes to denigrate soils. To help people avoid such a gaffe, Davenport explains the difference. Dirt is dead, she says, while soil is full of microscopic life. Soil provides our food, supports our forest and enriches our lives. Dirt gets under your nails and into the carpet. Soil is “the upper skin of the Earth.”

Yet, despite all of soil’s benefits, it’s often treated like dirt: “We walk all over it!” Davenport says. More...
Davenport brings her love of soil to a new online course this fall. Soils 201 is designed for those seeking a degree in agriculture or earning WSU’s Organic Agriculture Certificate. The three-credit course includes a lot of multimedia, such as animations and videos, but a shovel is also handy. In one assignment, students dig up soil, and put in a plastic bag with a piece of white paper. A week later, they report on what happened to the paper, and if they found any worms or insects.

When the assignment ends, she tells students “feel free to put the soil back into the ground where you dug it.” Davenport often takes a protective approach to soil. “I get very upset when I see land left to erode,” she says, “or people dumping waste on the soil that the soil cannot deal with.”

Davenport lives in Prosser, Washington. She’s an avid vegetable gardener, and she and her husband also grow wine grapes. She nourishes their patch of soil by composting kitchen wastes “to give them back to the land.”

Davenport taught a graduate level online soils class last fall, and has taught the soils module of WSU’s Viticulture Certificate Program online since 2006. “The viticulture program convinced me that online teaching could be as effective as live teaching,” she said. “In all my online teaching experiences, I have really appreciated the diversity of students and how we interact.”

Her interest in soils began in high school, when she worked on an organic farm. She earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Rutgers in 1978, a master’s in soil management from Iowa State University in 1981, and doctorate in soil chemistry from the University of Guelph in 1985.

“I am always interested in getting down and dirty about soils,” Davenport says.

--Richard H. Miller/CDPE

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