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Virginia Tech soil judging wins contest

The Virginia Tech Hokies Soil Judging Team took first place among 21 teams to claim the inaugural Virtual National Soil Judging Championship – the team’s sixth overall.

“This virtual contest was a huge success because it allowed us to have some continuity in teaching students and keeping the soil judging clubs and teams active during the pandemic,” John Galbraith, one of two team coaches and an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, said. “The contest was created because the organizers did not allow the pandemic to deny a whole set of students a learning opportunity provided by soil judging.”

The team was led by third-place finisher Bernie Frantz, a sophomore from Shavertown, Pennsylvania, majoring in biological systems engineering. Also competing were Alex Greehan, a junior from McLean, majoring in mechanical engineering; Clare Tallamy, a sophomore from Leesburg, majoring in environmental science; Kathlynn Lewis, a graduating senior from Charlottesville, majoring in environmental science; Michael Russell, a graduating senior from Richmond, majoring in environmental science; Lisa Small, a freshman from Williamsburg, majoring in engineering and Tessa Naughton-Rockwell, a junior from Alexandria, majoring in crop and soil sciences. All students finished in the top 30% of participants.

The Hokies finished in first place, followed by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Utah State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the University of Minnesota. Awards were sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America.

The Virginia Tech Soil Judging Team practiced in the field whenever possible.

“This contest was challenging because the students had to learn about a wide variety of soils that formed in very different conditions – from the tropics and the desert to the arctic. The practices covered almost all soil types on Earth, and so was a very comprehensive study in soil genesis, chemistry, morphology, and classification. The study supplements what they learned in other classes,” Jaclyn Fiola, a horticulture Ph.D. candidate and second coach of the team, said. 

The Hokies practiced twice per week in the field and the soils lab whenever possible, wearing masks and staying socially distant.

“Their hard work, great cooperation and teamwork earned them the national title,” Galbraith said. “They earned it and deserve the title of champions.” 

The virtual contest will likely be offered even after the in-person contests begin again this fall, as it offers a unique learning opportunity open to all students at all colleges and universities, not just the ones with established soil judging teams.