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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Number of U.S. soil science students in decline - even though soil science holds great future

An interesting article in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education discusses the decline in the number of soil science students at universities across the United States. This trend is worrying, but it may soon reverse, as soil science is becoming a very important topic in a wide range of crucial fields that deal with renewable energy, climate change, biodiversity and economic development. Soil science is no longer the sole realm of those active in agriculture. Soils are the key to a whole range of extremely important ecosystem services that may soon receive a real market value. In short, soils are sexy. And so are the scientists studying them.

Soils have become the nexus at which a set of pressing world problems converge: from the destruction of forests in the tropics - fueled by declining soil fertility - to the capacity of soils to sequester vast amounts of carbon and to mitigate climate change; or from the role soils play in cleaning up water and air, to the wealth in biodiversity they represent as the home to a great variety of (unknown) microorganisms that may play a role in the production of next-generation biofuels or new pharmaceuticals.

But notwithstanding these fascinating topics studied by modern pedologists, it is worth asking the question as to why the number of young people studying soil science as a major, has been declining across the United States. Mary Collins, University of Florida, Gainesville, analysed the trend and looks for explanations.

Collins notes that the faculties who work closely with undergraduate students have seen this steady decline for several years. And there are many reasons one can give for why this is happening. This decline affects not only the students but also the courses offered, the quality of graduate students, and the possible merger of departments, says Collins.

The National Academy of Sciences through the National Committee for Soil Science established a subcommittee to study the declining trend of low enrollments in the major. The outcome of the subcommittee work and international commentaries on this subject are reported in Collins' article. The international soil science education community is also facing a similar tendency.

Today many of America's graduate students come to soil science with various undergraduate backgrounds including non-science disciplines. Collins explains, "These graduates may be outstanding, but they do not have the fundamental educational background in soils common at the undergraduate level."

How can U.S. universities increase the enrollment in their courses and major, Collins asks:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Possible solutions include recruiting the “undecided” students already on-campus; having the best lecturer in the department teach the normally high enrolled introductory soils course; discussing with your colleagues if the courses offered have been static; changing the names of the courses; offering courses through distance education; establishing a combined B.S/M.S. degree program; and advertising how a student can major in soil science and still prepare for a professional school.

So what are the conclusions about the declining enrollment of undergraduate students majoring in soil science? Collins gives several of her concerns as she sees it from her experience at the University of Florida. She ends her article with one final question: Will the soils exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, which opened this past July, have any influence on the millions of children visiting the exhibit to choose soils as a major?

Biopact would want to add an example of how soil science can be very innovative and lead to fascinating careers. The discovery of ancient 'terra preta' soils in the Amazon initially brought together archaeologists, anthropologists and soil scientists. The latter are now trying to uncover the secrets of these highly fertile soils. At the same time they're experimenting with modern-day replications of the ancient soil enhancement technique.

These experiments and the contemporary version of 'terra preta' - known as biochar or agrichar - have opened up an entirely new area of very exciting research, which now brings together experts from fields as diverse as climate change, bioenergy, agronomy, conservation and development economics. Because if the terra preta soil enhancement technique can be made to work today, it could become a strategy to address some of the most important issues of our times: biochar could help tackle climate change, generate carbon-negative renewable energy, reduce fertilizer use, counter tropical deforestration and enhance farming amongst the world's poorest communities.

In short, soil scientists show that their field is not limited per se to the study of the chemical, physical and biological processes at work in soils. In fact, their work is at the center of a series of highly intertwined and broad environmental issues. The soil scientists are often the ones who succeed in weaving these topics together and so present surprising new areas of research that may help solve grand problems.

Picture: soil science students at work in professor Johannes Lehmann's lab, Cornell University. Lehmann pioneers research into biochar. Credit: Cornell University, Dept. of Crop & Soil Science.


Mary E. Collins, "Where have all the soil students gone?", Journal of Natural Resources & Life Science Education, Vol. 37 2008, pp. 117-124.

SSSA is the founding sponsor of an approximately 5,000-square foot exhibition, Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, which opened on July 19, 2008 at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, DC.


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