USDA grant will support Clemson team’s quest to modernize the teaching of soil science

Clemson, S.C. – A team at Clemson University is working to innovate how agricultural colleges incorporate technology into classes fundamental to the educational success of their students.

Elena Mikhailova and Christopher Post, professors in Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, were awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant for their idea to adapt technologies used in soil science research for use in teaching soil science to students. Kayla Payne, the college’s director of assessment, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching innovations.

Colorful LiDar image of trees and landscape

LiDAR, which is commonly used to make high-resolution maps, is one technology the researchers will adapt for teaching soil science to students.

Soil science is a fundamental class for aspiring agriculturalists and natural resources managers.  According to the researchers, there is an urgent need to upgrade the level of technology in agriculture and natural resource education to address the rapidly evolving advanced technologies that are impacting food, agriculture, natural resources, and human professionals.

“More and more people are realizing the importance of soil science, and there is an increase in demand for classes in soil science here at Clemson and other universities,” Mikhailova said. “Our project will enhance soil science, agricultural and natural resource education with hands-on experiences using cutting-edge technological tools.”

The grant will support development of web-based learning modules and an augmented reality application for visualizing soils data. Learning modules will incorporate virtual reality immersive video and static images to improve student engagement. These modules would train students in unmanned aerial vehicles based and sensor data collection as well as geospatial, crowdsourcing, and 3D visualization topics.

The grant builds on the success of the team’s previous research in the design and use of Reusable Learning Objects, or RLOs. Results from their previous studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

In one study, the Clemson professors used a soil color sensor and a GPS-enabled phone crowd sourcing application to teach soil color determination. Soil color is an important property related to mineral composition, drainage, and other characteristics.

The researchers evaluated the effectiveness of the virtual teaching tools in a number of key factors, including content quality, motivation, interactivity, design and information retention.

After interacting with the technology, the students were quizzed to determine how well they retained what they had learned. They also were surveyed to determine their comfort and understanding of the technology. The data suggested participants were able to retain what they learned and were comfortable and enthusiastic about using the technology.

A LiDar drone flying through a blue sky

The researchers will use drones to create maps that can be used to teach students soil science concepts.

“Students are aware and excited by the new technologies for data collection and for visualizing and understanding data, but they do not often find them in the classroom,” Mikhailova said.

The two-year $147,000 Higher Education Challenge (HEC) grant comes at a time when colleges across the U.S. are scrambling to find innovative virtual learning solutions that will keep student populations safe from COVID-19 while also preparing them to enter the workforce.

“As much as possible we’re going to tie these teaching modules to the technology they know best – their phones,” Post said. “They can be together virtually. And since many of the technologies we are using are used in soil science research, giving students at Clemson and around the world access to training on the latest technologies is key to their success in the workforce.”

This will be a way for students to have a hands-on experience even though they can’t be together in person.

“They get to go to the field, use the technology and interact with each other virtually,” Payne said.

The USDA-HEC grant program is designed to address state, regional, national and international educational needs and to encourage creative and non-traditional educational approaches that can be modeled by others.

Clemson is among a host of other top universities receiving the awards, including the University of California-Davis, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Cornell University and others.

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