Fertile Soil for Teaching

Fertile Soil for Teaching

It’s not every researcher that wears a hard hat and works around dynamite. But Dr. Holly Dolliver of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls embraces the unique parts of studying soil at a frac sand mining site. Wisconsin law requires that land used for mining must be reclaimed, so Dr. Dolliver is part of a five-year research program to see how soils react to being stripped, stockpiled, and respread. “Our emphasis is to understand holistically how the soil responds to disturbance, identify which soil properties are most impacted, and examine how soil properties change over time.”

Dr. Holly Dolliver with Amanda French
Dr. Holly Dolliver (left) with Amanda French, an Environmental Science undergraduate student.

Dr. Dolliver applied for a LI-COR Environmental Education Fund (LEEF) grant for this project. “I needed an instrument that was robust and could collect high-quality data, but also easy enough for my students to use in the field. This was the only piece of equipment that met that criteria.” The equipment is an LI-8100A Automated Soil Gas Flux System, which measures CO2 flux from the soil.

In addition to the research program that she’s involved in, Dr. Dolliver also teaches a soil physics course. She implemented a flipped classroom format, which has worked well for maximizing valuable class time. Students watch videos for background (lecture) information before coming to class. The students learn the concepts on their own, and then in the classroom they apply their knowledge by connecting with equipment, getting data, and doing real research. “These activities are very high impact and help our students get the skills needed to land great jobs.”

Students don’t just learn about principles behind soil flux, but apply it. One of her students, Stella Pey, said, “We get real data out of the ground. It’s not like a textbook or conventional lecture.” Stella is doing a project this summer looking at how carbon flux, biological parameters, and soil physical parameters change over time on Conservation Reserve Program lands. “The more time you spend with it, the more you get into the concepts behind what’s going on in the chamber,” says Stella.

Stella Pey with the LI-8100A
Stella Pey, a Crop and Soil Science undergraduate student, uses the LI-8100A.

The LI-8100A has been useful to teach concepts in a hands-on way. “Anytime they can see data and statistical trends, that’s powerful.” Having a dedicated instrument available has even changed what Dr. Dolliver can cover in the classroom. “Before the LI-COR, I didn’t have any equipment to measure gas flux from soil. With the LI-8100A, I have been able to develop a high-quality unit on gas flux that not only teaches the concepts, but provides students with applied learning opportunities as well.”

Dr. Dolliver was grateful for the opportunity the LEEF program afforded her. “It’s really the only way I could have gotten the equipment. Funding is a huge issue as I had only a modest budget for equipment.  I knew I wanted one piece of signature equipment that would stay with me and be something that would distinguish what we do from other research groups. The LI-COR LI-8100A was that. The LEEF program provided the financial assistance. For an undergraduate institution to have a piece of equipment like that is pretty great.”

Photos courtesy of Dr. Holly Dolliver, University of Wisconsin—River Falls.

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