RALEIGH — David Lindbo is shin-deep in rainwater, his rubber boots sloshing in the bottom of a 5-foot hole as he scrapes at its earthy wall with a knife.
Surrounding him in a field off Lake Wheeler Road are two dozen middle school and high school students who are nearing the end of a three-hour Saturday class devoted entirely to soil.
So far, Lindbo has explained what makes cat litter clump and why M&Ms fade if you suck on them. He has stuck electrodes into soil and poured Kool-Aid through funnels filled with it. Now, the students stand rapt as he reads the layers of gray and brown mixed into the orange soil as if they were tea leaves.
Lindbo is helping prepare these students from five counties for the Envirothon academic competition, which kicks off this week in North Carolina work that recently earned him the 2013 Envirothon Mentor of the Year award from the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District.
But the N.C. State University soil science professor says mentoring younger students is part of his larger quest to engage people with whats beneath their feet a brand of evangelism that requires endless ingenuity.
The wildlife people can show up with little critters, and everyone will want to be a wildlife biologist, says Lindbo, 52. We have a disadvantage, so we have to make any connection we can to show them its more important than you think.
Lindbo speaks to scientists and other professionals in dozens of workshops across the country every year focused on septic systems, land use, wetlands conservation and other soil-related topics.
He started working with Envirothon 11 years ago and now helps prepare students and teachers across the state, traveling as far as Dare and Buncombe counties to talk about soil, a key concept in a competition focused on environmental concepts.
He has also written two books about soil aimed at children as young as sixth grade.
He literally goes the extra mile to share his knowledge and passion with everyone and anyone wholl invite him, says Sheila Jones, who coordinates Envirothon for Wake County. He makes soils down to earth, fun and relevant to our everyday lives.
Working on several levels
Lindbo grew up in the small Massachusetts town of Winchester, outside Boston, where he developed an early appreciation for the land while working on his grandfathers small farm nearby.
I grew up with the understanding that if you want to eat, you have to know something about the soil, he says.
He was headed toward a degree in environmental conservation at the University of New Hampshire when he took a soil science class by chance, because it fit in a time slot he needed to fill.
A particularly engaging instructor piqued his interest in the topic, which became his minor and later the focus of his graduate studies.
He moved to North Carolina for his job with the university in 1995. He was based at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth until 2003, when his job moved to Raleigh.
He says that the importance of soil is only growing, while interest in the field has either stood still or diminished.
N.C. State is one of only a handful of universities nationwide that maintain a soil science department, he says, while recent research suggests soil may offer as much promise for pharmaceuticals as the rainforest. And soil is crucial to understanding the impact of climate change on ecosystems.
Its an extremely important subject that nobody knows exists, says Lindbo. Everybody knows about geology or Earth science, but not soil.
His own specialty is unusual because it is not focused on agriculture. Instead, he studies how the composition of soil affects its ability to purify wastewater, and the impact of that on land use and conservation.
Focusing on kids
Lindbo first got involved with Envirothon when his oldest son, who is now out of college, started competing. Lindbo liked that the competition interested students in both science and the outdoors.
He quickly found that his expertise was needed; while specialists in aquatics, forestry and wildlife were easy enough to find, there werent many soil scientists among the volunteer teachers.
He is now a coach for his younger sons team, and he continues to mentor other teams. Teams of five students square off at the county level, with the best going on to state and national competitions.
Local Envirothon competitions open this week Wake Countys is Friday leading up to the state competition next month.
Lindbos Envirothon work has become part of his job at N.C. State, where his appointment includes an extension component focused on disseminating information to the public.
Hes also the undergraduate coordinator for N.C. States department of soil science, so he says his work with students figures into his recruitment efforts. His department now offers a modest scholarship to Envirothon contestants who want to study soil science.
He is proud of the teams he has helped that went on to national competitions and of the several Envirothon competitors who have gone on to study soil science.
Lindbo says hell typically work in two- or three-hour presentations for middle school and high school students when hes traveling for workshops with local officials and scientists.
Hell teach the students what goes into soil, the chemical reactions that make plants grow and a host of other topics, throwing out free pencils and mugs to students who answer his questions correctly. Hell see some students every year from sixth grade to college.
His pitch to them often begins with an idea borrowed from the soil science professor who first got him interested in the topic: that humans would perish without soil. He asks students to name something they need to survive, and he relates each example back to the dirt.
I tell them that without soil, they would be hungry, homeless and naked, he says. That usually gets them thinking.
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