Fellowship Baptist School fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Hillary Austin leads her students through the Soil Tunnel Trailer Tuesday. The traveling exhibit offered students a close-up, enlarged view of what goes on beneath the surface of the soil. L&T photo/Rachel Coleman
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
It wasn’t the “Magic School Bus” of animated television, but the Soil Tunnel Trailer that visited intermediate schools and Liberal Memorial Library Tuesday did a great imitation. Like the cartoon students of Miss Frizzle, local children were able to experience the sensation of shrinking to microscopic size in order to experience life underground.
“You can teach and teach and teach children all you want,” Hillary Austin, fourth- and fifth-grade instructor at Fellowship Baptist School, said. “But a lot of times, until they get to see something up close and experience it, they don’t understand.”
Like their public school counterparts, Austin’s class walked through a larger-than-life exhibit that depicted the organisms that live underfoot, the intricate root systems that hold soil in place and evidence of life present and past, from snapping turtle eggs to fossils. Charts and maps offered more information about types of soil in Kansas, aquifers and water pollution. Most students, though, were more impressed by the yard-long worm that protruded from one side panel.
The soil tunnel trailer arrived in Seward County thanks to Carolyn Quillin of Kismet, who’s worked as a United States Department of Agriculture agent for eight years. Much of her work focuses on education, particularly among the youngest residents of the county, she said.
“It’s amazing how many children in this district, where agriculture is so important, don’t know where food comes from or where their clothes come from,” she said. “The soil tunnel is one way to help them make that connection.”
Quillin heard that fellow conservation agents in Miami County had created the trailer, and arranged its visit to Liberal. Black Hills Energy and Plains Equity Exchange helped sponsor the traveling exhibit, and Quillin donated her time to drive the trailer to Liberal in order to cut costs.
“This is just something I really wanted kids in the area to experience,” she said. “It goes beyond the programs we do at the Liberal Parks and Recreation Department and on Earth Day.”
Seward County Agricultural Extension agent Mike Hanson shared Quillin’s enthusiasm for the event. At Cottonwood Intermediate School, eight classes toured the trailer, and “we didn’t hear them saying ‘dirt, dirt dirt,’” he said. “We heard them talking about ‘soil.’ I was glad to hear that because it lets me know they’re listening. We’re heading over to Sunflower this afternoon.”
Though farming was once viewed as the underpinning for everyday life in the area, Hanson said, “we see less and less farm kids who understand the relationship between agriculture and life.”
In order to help students make the connection, USDA conservation service agents Leslie Spikes and Sherri Lamont accompanied the trailer. Students got a hands-on lesson about sand, clay, silt and loam — literally, as they felt the soil samples to compare the different textures. Next, it was time to absorb facts.
“If you’re not naked, starving or homeless, soil is part of your life,” Lamont said. She pointed to the tiles in Memorial Library’s foyer, the walls and the paint. “Soil is part of everything you see,” she told the students. “The cotton your jeans are made from started out by growing in soil.”
“It’s part of food, too,” Spikes added. “If you eat chips, the grain or the corn was grown in soil. And the oil they fried the chips in comes from the soil.”
“How about pizza?” asked Fellowship Baptist student Tucker Deaton.
“Pizza, too,” Spikes said.
That personal sense of appreciation for how soil helps make life better is a good first step in what Spikes described as “real stewardship.”
“We want to educate people about conservation, not preservation,” she said. “It’s not about leaving everything alone and not using the land to farm. We need to farm, and the world needs Kansas farmers to grow crops. It’s about taking care of what you have, using things wisely so that life can continue to provide the things we want and need.”
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