MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > What Makes Soil? Learning About Our Local Soils

What Makes Soil? Learning About Our Local Soils

Susan Van Kekerix
Minnehaha Elementary School, Grade 5
Two Harbors, MN
Following the introductory soil sample inquiry lesson, I will be taking ideas from a unit developed by Utah Agriculture in the Classroom from the Utah State University Extension called, Dirt: Secrets In The Soil ( ). I will also be using
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In this activity, soil samples will be taken from students' home sites and brought to school. Students will make and record observations of their soil samples in their journals. Students will come up with ways of "sorting" the components of their sample to determine what their samples are made of. Students will test their sorting strategies. Students will revise their original journal entries. Students will share their findings with the group. The teacher will begin teaching a unit on soil based on ideas from a unit developed by Utah Agriculture in the Classroom from the Utah State University Extension called, Dirt: Secrets in the Soil.

Learning Goals

1. Students will investigate soil samples taken from the local area.
2. Students will generate a class inquiry question they want to answer about their soil samples (with guidance from the classroom teacher if needed).
3. Students will devise ways to "sort" materials in their samples to discover what their sample is made of.
4. Students will observe and record their observations in their journals using pictures and words.
5. Students will use collaboration to share their ideas/findings with their classmates.

Students will use critical thinking skills, data analysis, and eventually synthesis of ideas in this activity. They will be creating questions, observing, writing, presenting their ideas through oral presentation, using field techniques, and using equipment to accomplish this activity. Students will learn and/or review the words inquiry, sample, collaboration, observation, and soil.

Context for Use

This activity is intended for grade five but could easily be adapted to any grade K-6. I would probably require sixth graders to develop their own inquiry questions, test them, record them, and present them. This activity could lead into so many different areas, which is the intention of this starter activity; I want them to come up with further questions that could be explored (student lead curriculum with some guidance). Some prior knowledge is helpful, but not required, to do this activity. Younger students would definitely need more guidance in forming inquiry questions.

I would pre-teach about rules for digging (safety and permission/assistance), classroom lab etiquette, observations, and recording information in journals. We would review the observation methods (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) and which would be appropriate in this lesson. We would review the proper use of hand lenses.


-Hand lenses

-A large container that can be covered



-Paper towels



-Coffee filters

-Chart paper



-Containers for water


-Broom and dustpan





-Colored pencils, etc.

We may also want to have a map of the county to identify the location of various household locations where samples were taken from. The teacher would have a variety of printed resources for students to identify items in soil samples (ex. rock guides, insect guides, etc.).

Subject: Geoscience:Soils, Geoscience, Environmental Science:Soils and Agriculture, Environmental Science
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity, Field Activity
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:K12, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Soil, Environmental Science

Description and Teaching Materials

1. I would begin by asking students to bring a sample of soil to school. I would send a letter home asking parents to assist their child in safely taking a soil sample from their yard. The requirements for this soil sample would be that it be taken from the location that they live in (or a friend, relative, etc.) with permission. I would ask that they write the address of the soil sample on their sealed sample container.

2. Students would be asked to form a question about their sample that they could possibly find the answer to by direct observation. Students would generate a list of possible questions that could be asked about their sample. The teacher would steer the class toward the questions that would ask, "What is soil made of?" This would become the structured question that students would enter in their journals.

3. Students would then be asked how they were going to find the answer to that question. Students would eventually decide that they should look at, handle, observe, and manipulate the soil. I would then pose the question asking them what they might need in order to accomplish this lab. Students might request tools such as basins, paper towels, shovels, spoons, water, etc. I would provide the materials for the class. Weather permitting, we would take our equipment and samples outside where we would make less mess. If we had to do it indoors, I would spread newspapers on the floor so they could dump their soil on the floor and sort through it.

4. As students are working through their samples, I would walk around asking about their sorting methods. Hopefully they would start drawing and writing about the different types of components of their samples.

5. As students are finishing up, I would have them take their samples and use the soil to fill in low spots in the school yard or around trees if needed so that it does not go to waste. They would then return their dusted off equipment to their basins and return to the classroom.

6. Students would then begin collaborating with others in the class, sharing their information. Ideally, students would find living and non-living items in their soil. If we did not find any worms to begin taking our discussion that direction, I would lead students into talking about the interaction of worms with the soil, which can lead to the discussion about other decomposers, air in soil, etc. We can also talk about the effect of water on soil and land, which can lead in the direction of lessons about geology and topography of the land. There are so many other ties to the soil that are listed in our standards; the student-lead possibilities are many. [file 'The Universe Underfoot by Kathleen Weflen is a great resource for teachers to get some basic background on soil. It is part of the Young Naturalist series put out by the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine. It would also be a great summary activity following numerous inquiry-based investigations with soil. The readability level is upper elementary or middle school level.']

Teaching Notes and Tips

The Log Hotel by Anne Schreiber is a book that would be a great book to set the stage for inquiry in the primary grades if adapting this lesson at another level.

I might have soil samples that do not yield enough of the components that make up typical good soil samples (organic material present, living organisms evident, etc.) which might necessitate a "staged" follow-up activity with some soil from my own yard which I can usually rely on for worms, plant material, etc., to be present. Our clay soil is hard to dig in, which might present problems in getting a good bucket of soil to look through. I might not get enough students/parents cooperating to get possible duplication of results.

There will also be some pre-teaching needed in order to talk about the dangers of working with soil. Students need to learn about proper hygiene following any activity where they are working with soil (gardening, playing in soil, digging, etc.).

In the past, I would have had students read a story about soil or teach a lesson about soil before performing a lab activity. I am hoping by starting with a topic like soil, students will develop other questions for inquiry lessons in the future and therefore set the purpose and direction for their own learning.


Students will look at soil samples and record their observations in their journals with pictures and words.
Students will generate questions about soil.
Students will determine which questions could be answered through an inquiry process.
Students will design a method for sorting the materials in their soil sample.
Students will collaborate with others in their class to share their findings and draw some possible conclusions as a class.


51B1-2 Controlled experiments and repeated experiments produce consistent results
53A1-4 Rocks break down into soil
Formation, composition, and properties of soil
Waves, water, and ice reshape the Earth's surface
Impact of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and volcanoes on Earth's surface

54F2-3 Relationships among producers, consumers, and decomposers
Organisms are growing, dying, and decaying and their matter is recycled

Language Arts
52A1a, c writing for a variety of purposes (descriptive, informative)
5D2 Formulate research question and gather information or perform observation
53A4 Give oral presentation to various audiences for a variety of purposes

Arts (Draft version)
Strand 1 Standard 2 Identify and use a variety of tools, materials, and techniques for creation in media arts

References and Resources