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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Unit 1: Introduction to Soils and Society


In this unit, students engage in a scaffolded class discussion designed to encourage students to move from a broad focus on science relevancy to locally important societal issues relevant to soils. They then relate what they learned during this discussion to the major assessment of this module, the Soils, Systems, and Society Kit (the Kit) assignment, and begin exploring potential focal issues for this assignment. Lastly, the unit introduces concept mapping, and pre-service teachers create a starting concept map for Earth systems, which is a required element of the Kit.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

By the end of this unit, students will:

  • List and discuss several interdisciplinary societal issues where soil characteristics play an important role in society
  • Describe several instances in which the science of soil is relevant to their lives
  • Create an Earth systems concept map

Context for Use

This unit is designed for elementary education pre-service teaching majors in an undergraduate or graduate level science teaching methods course. It could be easily modified for non-teaching students by altering questions that refer to teachers or future classrooms/students. The unit takes approximately 180 minutes (three hours) to complete and is presented in two parts that may be completed in two separate class sessions—with homework assignments for each—or in a single 2–3 hour lab session. In addition, the homework could be integrated as in-class activities if time is available.

No previous knowledge or experience working with soils (or significant background science knowledge) is assumed.

Description and Teaching Materials

Part I - Relevance, the Kit, and the Challenges (60 ~ 70 min)

Discussion (20 min)

Begin Unit 1 with a class discussion of scaffolded focus questions designed to progress students from a broad focus on science relevancy to locally important interdisciplinary societal issues in the context of soils.

Focus questions:

  • As teachers, why is it important that we make science relevant to our students?
  • In the classroom, when have you experienced science as being relevant to you?
  • How did a topic's relevance affect how well you learned it?

The purpose of the first three questions is to illuminate that making science relevant improves learning. Read about ways to connect to the world we live in and how that helps learning.

  • What are some ways that we can make science relevant to our students?
  • What are some locally relevant interdisciplinary societal issues? (Write these on the board.)
  • How do these societal issues relate to soil science?
  • Can you think of other relevant societal issues that studying soils can help us to understand? (Write these on the board as connected to the locally relevant issues.)

Homework (or in-class, depending on the length of the class session) - Connect Soils to Societal Challenges (20 ~ 30 min)

  1. Share the Soils and Society Issues Homework Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Jan6 16) with the class.
  2. Go back to the class brainstorm list of relevant societal issues around soil. Write the three column headings for the homework table on the board: Local Importance, Broad Importance, Testable Questions.
  3. Ask the students to choose one of the issues and complete the table on the board for that issue as a class.
  4. Continue completing the first column of the homework table (local importance) until you have enough issues so that each student (or small groups for a large class) could choose one to research for the homework. Here is an example issues table (Acrobat (PDF) 46kB Jul28 15) that can help you.
  5. Allow each student to choose 1-2 issues to research for the homework assignment. They should write these in the homework table. Their research will be discussed at the beginning of Unit 2 and the homework should be completed by that time.

Soils, Systems, and Society Kit Assignments, aka, "the Kit" (20 min)

  1. Share the Soils and Society Kit Assignment (Microsoft Word 23kB Jan7 16) with the class.
  2. Explain the importance of the assignment.
  3. Briefly discuss the goals and requirements of the assignment.

PART II - Systems Thinking and Concept Mapping (60 ~ 90 min)

Systems thinking is one of the essential concepts emphasized in this unit, and systems and system models is one of the crosscutting concepts of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Concept mapping is an effective tool for introducing and teaching about systems thinking by making sense of relationships among concepts, content, and events using words and hierarchical, spatial relationships. Concept mapping is also an important element of the module, contributing from planning for to explanation of the module and the relationship of concept, content, and the grand challenge/system relationship each student addresses in his or her Kit. Here is an excellent introduction to concept mapping from the Human's Dependence on Mineral Resources module.

As a part of the Kit, students will make explicit interdisciplinary (biology, geology, policy, economics, etc.) connections for their soil issues that incorporate multiple systems (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, etc). If your students have not yet been introduced to systems thinking, briefly discuss its definition with them.

Activities to develop fundamental skills in concept mapping, contributing to the successful development of their Kits, are listed below. Eventually students may want to create a digital map. Suggestions (there are many more options online):

  • Cmap is a free software program for making concept maps developed by the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.
  • Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is a free, open source program housed at Tufts University that can also be used for creating digital concept maps.
  • Inspiration is a commercial software program with different packages for desktops, iPads, etc. There is a range of purchase prices and free trials are available.

Homework or in-class activity, depending on the length of the class session (40 min)

  1. Remind the students that a concept map is a required part of the Kit and point out that concept maps have great utility for elementary teachers in and beyond science, and provide a visual, spatial, and linguistic representation of systems thinking (see also Howard Gardener's Theory of Multiple Intelligences).
  2. Ask the students to review the brief description of concept mapping; then have the students develop their own concept map of something they know well that is a "fun" topic of their choice. Good examples are their favorite childhood story (e.g., Little Red Riding Hood), their favorite movie (e.g., Shrek), or their life and interactions with their favorite pet (e.g., their cat, dog, or horse).
  3. They will be required to bring their concept map to class and share it with two peers, telling their "story" in 2 minutes or less, using their map as a reference.

In-class work (50 min)

10 min: Break students into cooperative groups of 3. Direct them using the personal concept map homework [in-class] assignment to tell their stories, as illustrated by their concept maps, to their peers. Give them no more than two minutes each. That is, it should be a "short story!" Plan to keep time to help the students remain on task.

25 min: Have them remain in their cooperative groups and direct them to map the following elements. Encourage them to add to the map beyond just the items on the list provided below. Here is one possible arrangement: Earth systems concept map (Acrobat (PDF) 137kB Oct20 15).

  • Central topic : Earth system
    • Concepts
      • Air (Atmosphere)
      • Ecosystems (Biosphere)
      • Earth materials (Geosphere)
      • Water cycle (Hydrosphere)
      • Subordinate concepts/topics
        • Weather
        • Wind
        • Precipitation
        • Weathering
        • Climate
        • Temperature
        • Erosion

Hints for success with concept mapping:

  • Give students Post-it notes to write the topic, concepts, and subordinate concepts. The Post-its allow for negotiation of best fit, that is, they can move the Post-its around until they are satisfied with the visual/spatial relationships and hierarchy.
  • Once they have their Post-it notes arranged, have them work on the connecting lines paying attention to:
    • Direction of arrows
    • The words (propositions) included on the lines
    • Overall sensible/logical organization

Concluding Activity (15 min): Referencing their work from the above collaborative activity, discuss how one or more of the grand challenges would map onto their basic Earth systems map. Save these draft maps for further use and reference.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor may choose to provide web-based resources or books for the students to reference when completing the Soils and Society Issues Homework. The National Resource Conservation Service for Soils for Soils and the Soil Science Society of America websites are both good resources to provide to students.

Science Relevance - Making science relevant to your students' personal lives is an important part of helping them develop intrinsic motivation for learning a topic. Motivation is one component of the affective domain of student learning that ties learning to emotion. It would be useful to precede this unit with a lesson on the affective domain and motivating students if your students have never before been exposed to these ideas.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) – The Kit requires students to use science standards (we use NGSS) to develop their lessons. It is thus important to introduce students to the NGSS or other standards before assigning the Kit. Briefly, the NGSS outline the core science and engineering content that all students should know by the time they graduate high school. All performance expectations include both instruction and assessment and are taught within the context of three dimensions: Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. See the NGSS website for details.


The Soil and Society Issues Homework assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Jan6 16) will be discussed at the beginning of Unit 2 and should be completed prior to that time. We use the homework as a formative assessment. Feedback can be provided as comments on the homework or as a class discussion as time allows. Students receive credit if they have answered all of the questions.

One way to ensure that students complete the assignment on time but allow them to use it in discussion is to stamp the top of complete papers at the start of discussion and then ask them to staple the assignment into their science journals. The assignment can be formally assessed in the science journal if desired. See more information about science journals under "Show Pedagogic choices" under the "making the module work" section on the overview of the module.

References and Resources

USDA Cooperative Extension System: You can use this site to find a extension agent near you who can help you find local soils and may even be willing to visit your classroom.

National Resource Conservation Service for Soils: This site contains extensive information about soils throughout the United States and excellent background information and resources for K-12 educators that you can share with your students.

The Web Soil Survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is an interactive site that allows you to view soil survey maps and download soils data for your area.

The Dig In! books from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) are an excellent resource for soil investigations.

The Soil Science Society of America has a number of lessons and activities (sorted by grade level) for pre-service teachers to use in the development of their kit.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »