Every other fall, Cristian Schulthess, associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, offers a class called Soil Chemistry Processes. The course description may sound intimidating, but Schulthess says that studying chemistry with an environmental twist fits with many majors from plant science to environmental engineering.
“Most students are quite afraid of chemistry,” Schulthess says. “I’m taking them through the components of soil chemistry and teaching them chemistry principles through the environment. Studying the environment involves three components—physics, biology and chemistry—and they are all intertwined.”
There are three major sections to the course. The first covers oxidation-reduction reactions through environmental examples such as the degradation of organic material. Climate, moisture, soil composition, and soil contaminants all affect oxidation. Students observe the differences in soil color and how they relate to reactions at a cellular level. For instance, if an environment is highly oxidizing, the soil becomes redder; if the opposite occurs, the soil turns gray. Students learn the biology of photosynthesis and the environmental consequences to these reactions.
The second section of the course focuses on measuring pH (hydrogen concentration) in the environment. “There is a lot of nuance to pH and salt concentrations and how particles interact with each other,” Schulthess points out. This section covers measuring techniques, pH properties and particle interaction.
During the third part of the course, students study soil fertility and soil contamination control, including reactions between contaminants in liquid and solid forms, contaminant movement within the environment and retention reactions. Students learn the process of extracting materials from soil.
“I try to promote chemistry as much as I can,” Schulthess says. “Once students get past these chemistry classes, they have more courage with the hard sciences. They are more comfortable because chemistry is not such a mystery anymore. The students walk away feeling more empowered about what’s going on in the world at a scientific level.”
Students entering this course should have a semester or two of basic chemistry. “The students come in knowing some chemistry, but the idea is to walk away not being afraid of chemistry. They learn real world applications of chemistry. It’s more interesting and draws them in. While chemistry can be difficult, I am not going to make it harder than it needs to be.”
The course is offered in alternating years with its sister course, Soil Chemistry Components, which focuses on the chemical components of soil and soil contaminants.