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Terps Dig Deep for Close Win at National Soil-Judging Championship

In Test of Knowledge and Grit, UMD Secures Fourth Recent Title

By College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Staff

UMD soil judging team, wearing matching red Maryland T-shirts, hoists trophy

The Terp soil judging team hoists the championship trophy after winning the National Collegiate Soils Contest on Friday. Below, the team members work in a pit as part of the competition hosted by Oklahoma State University.

Photos courtesy of College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

The University of Maryland beat out 22 other colleges and universities from around the country to take home the top prize in the National Collegiate Soils Contest at Oklahoma State University on Friday, marking the fourth Terp victory in the event in nine years, and sixth title overall.

Held in a different state each year, the soil-judging competition tests students’ ability to accurately describe the characteristics of various layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep pit. Contestants are given an hour in the hole to assess the color, consistency and constituent elements like sand, clay and organic matter, and then describe various properties such as the ability of the soil to transmit and retain water and support roots; they also describe the geological history of the site, assign a classification to the soil and assess potential challenges like building a home on it.

After dominating the Northeast regional contest last October in Benton, Pa., the UMD team entered the nationals in Woodward, Okla., expecting a tough challenge from teams with more national experience. And the scores were exceptionally close, with the Terps beating out California Polytechnic State University by a razor-slim margin of 2428-2422.

students test soil in pit

The contest gives students an opportunity to apply their coursework to the real world, where the ability to understand soils is critical to industries such as construction, resource extraction, agriculture and environmental management. UMD has fielded a regional team since the contests began in 1961 and competed nationally 40 times.

“There is nothing better than getting the opportunity to learn about new soils and gain field experience that we can directly relate to our future careers,” said team member Nicole Zimmerman, a senior environmental science and technology (ENST) major planning to pursue a career in soil science consulting.

“This team has made a huge difference in my senior year, and I’m so proud to be a part of it," said ENST major Gabriel Acevedo. “I like soil judging because instead of learning the science, I’m doing the science.”

Students traveled to the semi-arid region of northwestern Oklahoma, home to cattle ranches and oil wells, and spent four days getting accustomed to the region’s complex soils before the two-day competition. Students were reminded that it was a region hit hard by the Dust Bowl from 1930 to 1936 when they had to wear goggles in the pits to protect their eyes from high winds.

The UMD team was led by its only veteran soil-judging competitor, senior environmental science and policy (ENSP) major Madelyn Haines.

“Traveling to different areas and successfully describing their soils is the ultimate learning experience,” she said. “As a team, we’ve given our blood, sweat and happy tears to successfully end with new knowledge and the title we’ve worked so hard for.”

The lack of more experience with soil judging on the team made coming out on top a huge surprise, said junior Alex Quigley, an ENST major who took fourth place in the individual competition.

Other team members included ENST majors Patrick Burke, David Hutch and Gina Jacob; ENSP major Joshua Edelin and plant sciences major Nickolaus Kioutas. ENST doctoral student Jocelyn Wardrup and Associate Professor Brian Needelman served as coaches.

The first-place victory builds upon UMD's impressive soil-judging resume, which in addition to six national titles includes 13 Final Four finishes at the national competition and 26 regional championships.

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