Soil Physical Properties and Profiles

Mark Bowen
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
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Initial Publication Date: November 21, 2014


Students describe the color, structure, and hand texture of soil hand samples. Students also describe the profile for two soil cores.

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The activity is used in an undergraduate introductory physical geography course that includes a 2-hour laboratory session that meets once per week. The course is predominantly composed of non-majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This is the first part of a three-part series of exercises related to soils. In the second-part students use a county-level soil survey and in the third-part students use a bucket auger to collect a soil profile and then describe it in the field with the aid of the county soil survey.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Munsell color
Soil structure
Soil texture
Soil formation and horizonation

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students are asked to asses organic matter content based on color.
Students are asked to asses water holding capacity and aeration rate based on texture and structure.
Students are asked to asses potential for agriculture based on basic physical properties.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are expected to work in groups of 4 to complete this exercise. Each group is provided all necessary equipment plus 5 soil hand samples. Students are first asked to determine the color of each sample by comparing to a Munsell soil color chart. They then use the Field Book for Describing and Sampling Soils to determine structure. Each student from the group must hand texture at least one sample. The sample has been dried and ground to pass through a #8 sieve. After hand sample analysis is complete, students are provided with a soil core and expected to identify soil horizons and boundaries and color and structure for each horizon. Time permitting the analyze a second core by changing places with another group. Soil monoliths could be substituted for soil cores.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students complete the exercise during a 2-hour laboratory session. Students are expected to work in groups. Upon completion of the laboratory exercise, students must complete an online quiz that consists of the same questions in the exercise as well as questions on the background information included in the lab before the next lab meeting. The online quiz is within the Desire 2 Learn (D2L) online learning platform, so answers are automatically graded and imported into the student's grade book.

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Teaching materials and tips

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