Soils Lab Day

Monday was our first day of classes, and week 1 is “soil week”. I couldn’t be more excited. We were led into the classroom building, an old Benedictine monastery. The labs are so neat and organized! There are paintings of soil profiles adorning the halls. Almost like soil science is a respected discipline here! (That was sarcasm.)

First we had an hour or two of lecture. I was warned about some differences in behavior standards in European universities. You remove your hat when inside. You don’t lean back and act relaxed while in lecture. You don’t chew gum. You address the professors with formality. It is a strangely difficult thing to do when you are jet-lagged and jumpy, and the lecture is basic material you already have a handle on. I understood why it was basic; over half the class are not soils students. I kept wanting to jump in and explain things to them, but stopping myself because speaking out of turn would have been disrespectful.

We did a couple of lab procedures for determining particle size distribution in soils. The first was the good old hydrometer method. There was a small difference in how it was done here. In the States, we use sodium hexametaphosphate (Calgon) as a dispersant. Here, we used calcium carbonate and boiled it. Then the sample is put in a tall column and the sizes of the particles are measured by how fast they fall in the water. While waiting to make the two-hour reading, we did the “texture by feel” method, where you estimate the sand/silt/clay by wetting some soil in your hand and feeling it. While doing this, one of the Polish professors made a soil snowman, which I thought was cute. Students who are not soil nerds probably think all this lab stuff is boring and incomprehensible. The texture by feel method is one of the few chances in the lab to make the material interesting and real. Plus the soil judging guys got to show off. After the analyses were finished, we used a cool (and expensive) instrument called a laser diffraction spectrometer to determine the particle sizes, and compared the results. The professors explained about some of the changes in agricultural policy since Poland joined the EU, and how the money was obtained from the EU for the machine.

I learned how to say “sand”, “silt”, and “clay” in Polish. I also learned a bit about the European classification system for soils, which I want to learn more about. All in all, a tiring day, but I’m a happy little soil nerd!
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