Monitoring Lead in an Urban Community Garden

Jennifer Latimer, Indiana State University
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Initial Publication Date: March 17, 2016 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


Each spring, students in a 300-level field course collect samples from urban community gardens to monitor soil lead concentrations.

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals
Use previous data collected from the community garden to develop a sample plan, carryout the sampling and analysis of soils, and make recommendations based on EPA criteria for safe gardening.

Higher order thinking skills goals
Evaluate the new heavy metal data collected and determine if the soils are safe for gardening. Students make determinations about the best way to present their data, and write a summary report.

Other skills goals
Students work in groups to create their sample plan, collect samples, and collect data. They also learn how to use a portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer.

Context for Use

Type and level of course
This activity is used in a 300-level geology course for majors. Students in a field course complete the work, but the project could be completed in many different courses.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
No specific skills must be mastered to complete this activity. Students have usually completed mineral, petrology, and sedimentology, however, by the time they take this course.

How the activity is situated in the course
This is a stand alone activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students majoring in geology are required to take a field methods course prior to attending field camp. One of the projects includes soil sampling for heavy metals, particularly lead. Vigo County has had high rates of childhood lead poisoning in the past, and we offer free soil lead testing to the community in an effort to increase awareness of safer urban gardening practices.

Each spring, the field methods class returns to the ISU Community Garden to collect soil samples. This continued monitoring helps to identify any areas of concern, and it allows us to also test areas proposed for expansion of the garden. The timing of the class also allows us to test newly proposed gardens off campus if the opportunity arises.

I provide references that discuss lead hazards in urban areas, and I lecture more specifically about lead in Vigo County. Students then come together as 1-2 groups depending on the size of the class and develop a sampling plan. They carryout the field sampling, including collecting samples, but also determining soil color, texture, pH and moisture content. Students analyze the samples using a hand-held x-ray fluorescence analyzer, although I have also had students acidify samples and determine lead concentrations using ICP-OES. I provide students with a sample consulting report, and they write individual reports in that style. Their reports must include summary data tables, figures, and an appendix with all of their data. Findings are reported back to the garden manager.

Teaching Notes and Tips

We have an existing partnership with the community garden we revisit every spring because it is on our campus. However, when people are interested in starting a new community garden, they often contact us for help with soil lead testing. We work with the master gardeners association in the area. We also are present at gardening workshops and resource fairs during the spring.


For the written reports, I require that students write their papers in the format of an environmental consulting report. They must include their findings and recommendations, important tables, and figures, and an appendix with all of the data they collected.

References and Resources

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