I just grabbed some Whatman No.1 filters for the decomposition lab in Soil Ecology – the course that I’ll be TAing this semester. It’s Dr. Janice Thies’s course, and it is a lot of fun. We look at the soil organisms – nematode and arthropod extractions, bacterial and fungal isolations, and even DNA extraction, we measure what they are doing – nitrogen mineralization, respiration, and decomposition, and we try to manipulate them for our needs – students design, build, and maintain a vermicomposter based on soil ecological principles. I love the little world of soil biota, and love exploring it with the class.
One especially fun aspect is that we run all these analyses on the same set of soils throughout the semester, so by the end, we have a robust picture of the soil ecology of each. When I TAed the class two years ago, the effects of different land uses (forest, pasture, 30-years of corn) on the soils were very striking. This year, I hope to include an unknown soil that students characterize along with the others, and then use its relative properties to solve a little mystery – e.g., “We found this soil on the boot of the suspect. They claim to have been hiking in the forest while the crime occurred. Do you believe them?” I think it could be a lot of fun!