STEM Club: Let’s Get Dirty – Soil Horizons & Particle Size

Soil is the part of the ground where plants grow. Soil is a mixture of tiny particles of rock and rotting plant and animal material, with water and air between them. Soils help plants grow in two ways. First, soil holds the plants into place. Second, soil contains nutrients that plants need in order to survive. These nutrients include water, phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium.

Over the course of the next few weeks, STEM Club will be investigating soil ecology as a part of the Year of Soils. I’ve shared a few of our past endeavors relating to soils here:

Soil Ecology Activities for Middle School

Cycles and Ecosystems {Free Printable}

Soils Support Urban Life: Rain Gardens & Composting

Soils Support Agriculture: Ideas to Integrate Writing

STEM Club: Let's Get Dirty (Soil Ecology) @EvaVarga.net

Today, I share a lesson on soil horizons and particle size.

Soil Horizons

Soil particles vary greatly in size. The largest particles settle to the bottom first. The fine particles settle slowly; some are suspended indefinitely. The amount of open space between the particles has much to do with how easily water moves through the soil. This also determines how much water the soil will hold, which has a major effect on the type of plants that can grow in the soil.

STEM Club: Let's Get Dirty (Soil Ecology) @EvaVarga.net

Things to look for in soil are color, texture, structure, depth, and pH. A general soil profile is made up of a litter layer, A horizon, B horizon and C horizon. A soil sampling device (pictured in the collage above) allows you to gather data on the soil makeup on any site.

Soil Particle Size

Soil scientists classify soil particles into sand, silt, and clay. Scientists use these three components and the calculated percentages on the texture triangle to determine the textural class of the soil at a given site.

A soil’s texture depends on the size of its particles and living things depend on the right texture to thrive in the soil. Every soil type is a mixture of sand (2mm – 0.05mm; feels gritty), silt (0.05 – 0.002mm; feels like flour), clay (Smaller than 0.002; feels sticky when wet), and organic matter. Squeeze some soil between your fingers. Is it crumbly? Sticky?

STEM Club: Let's Get Dirty (Soil Ecology) @EvaVarga.net

Let’s Get Dirty ~ Terrestrial Soils

One of the best activities to engage kids in the study of soil ecology is the sample the soils around your home or school yard. Begin by asking the following questions:

1.  Are there different types of soil near your home?

2.  What texture class is this soil?

3.  What is the particle size make-up of this soil?

The answers generated prior to the investigation are part of your hypothesis. Record your ideas in your science notebook before you begin and give reasons. Why do you suppose the soil in your yard is predominately sand? What experience or prior knowledge do you have to help you make this statement?

Materials

  • 1 Soil probe
  • 1 Metric ruler
  • 1 Quart jar with lid
  • 1 Set index cards for diagrams

Procedure

  1. Use the soil probe to collect soil cores as deep as possible from a predetermined site.
  2. Diagram and measure the depth of each layer or horizon in your sample.
  3. Fill the quart jar at least half and no more than two thirds full.
  4. Fill the rest of the jar with water, seal tightly and shake vigorously for 10 minutes. Let the jar stand for 24 hrs.
  5. The next day, mark the soil layers of each sample on an index card placed behind the bottle. Mark the top of the soil and the points where the layers change. Calculate the percent of sand, silt and clay in your sample. To do this, measure the following marks you made on the card: entire height, sand (bottom) layer, silt (middle) layer, and clay (top) layer. Then take the height of each layer by the total height and multiple by 100. Record the figures on the data sheet.

STEM Club: Let's Get Dirty (Soil Ecology) @EvaVarga.net
Analysis of Results

  1. At which site was the soil the most sandy? silty? mostly clay?
  2. Do you think that this is a trend and would be found at other sites? Explain.
  3. What are some factors that may change the results of this experiment? Explain.

Conclusions

  1. Did you achieve your hypothesis? Explain.
  2. What did you learn by doing this exercise?
  3. Do you think the soil will be the same at other sites (park, forest, meadow, near the shore of a lake or river, etc.)? Design an inquiry project to learn more.

About Eva Varga

Eva is passionate about education. She has extensive experience in both formal and informal settings. She presently homeschools her two young children, teaches professional development courses through the Heritage Institute, and writes a middle level secular science curriculum called Science Logic. In addition to her work in education, she is an athlete, competing in Masters swimming events and marathons. In her spare time she enjoys reading, traveling, learning new languages, and above all spending time with her family. ♥