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Soil Formation Activities

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Soil formation can be a dry topic for students in science classes. Making the lesson hands-on is an important step in helping students understand the many processes that go on to form the soil they walk on. Here are some suggested activities to get you started.

Soil Formation

There are lot of aspects of soil that are easy for students to grasp. For example, the texture of soil and its permeability are easily observed with the eyes. When it comes to how soil forms, it can be a bit harder for students to see the process because waiting months and years just isn't a practical option. However, if you focus on the essential processes, you can recreate them in miniature scale using these activities.

Sampling Soils

Students come into the classroom with a lot of misconceptions about soil and how it forms. While it is easier to stand up and lecture, sometimes the best way for students to understand that there is a process to take students out and collect different soil samples. Those samples can then be used as a starting point to discuss how soil forms.

Materials

  • Soil sample in a plastic cup
  • Ziploc bags (sandwich- and gallon-size)
  • Plastic spoons or other digging tools
  • Samples of additional soil types (such as soil, composted cow manure, etc.) for in-class comparison

Instructions

  • Bring a cup of soil into the classroom. Ask students to brainstorm ideas of how they think the soil formed. List all of their ideas on your board.
  • Divide your students into partner-pairs or small groups and take them on a walk around your school campus.
  • Model for students how to safely take soil samples and have them place the sample in their sandwich size Ziploc bag. Challenge them to pull samples from as many different locations as possible.
  • Have pairs/groups put all of their sandwich bags into a gallon-size Ziploc bag and have them label the bag with their names using a permanent marker.

image 1 soil formation

  • Back in the classroom, have students study their samples. They can squish them in their hands, get them wet with a few drops of water, etc. Ask students to think about what the sample might have been originally formed from.
  • Using the additional samples, discuss with students that soil forms through different types of processes. Some soil forms from rock through a process known as mechanical weathering. Other times, it forms through chemical weathering, where weak acids such as acid rain react with rock and over time break it down into soil. Darker soils form when organic matter is broken down through biological/chemical processes, such as decomposition.
  • Give students access to the control samples you brought to class so that they can compare them with the soil samples from around the school. What do they notice is similar between the samples? What is different?

Mechanical Weathering

Rock becomes soil over a long period of time through the process of mechanical weathering. While it impractical to test the whole process in the classroom, you can give students a chance to witness the phenomenon first-hand using rock chips.

Materials

  • Granite chips
  • Marble chips
  • Basalt chips
  • Sturdy plastic jars with lids
  • Water
  • Graduated cylinders
  • Triple beam balance
  • Timer

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