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WSU faculty knee-deep in exhibit education
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
By Hope Belli Tinney, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. - If ever an opera is written about dirt, look for soil scientist Ann Kennedy’s name in the credits. If she’s not the lyricist, she’ll be the enthusiastic backer.
"I love dirt,” she said with a laugh. "I’m always, constantly, taking up handfuls of soil and smelling it.”
Kennedy, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service and an adjunct faculty member in crop and soil sciences at Washington State University, talks about dirt the way some people talk about wine, musing over its color, composition, geography and fragrance.
So it makes sense that, when Kennedy learned the Spokane Conservation District was bringing "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil,” to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in Spokane, she was all in.
After months of planning and preparation, the exhibit opened in early February to great reviews. More than 400 people attended first-day festivities. The show is scheduled to close Sept. 22.
Rescued from recession
The lively and engaging 5,000-square-foot exhibit includes interactive stations, hands-on models and a floor-to-ceiling display of surprisingly diverse soil from all 50 states. Extra points for knowing Washington’s state soil is tokul. More than 1 million acres of it cover the west side of the Cascades.
"Dig It!” was created by the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and premiered in 2008. The plan was for it to tour the country, but then the recession came along. After one stop in Nebraska, "Dig It!” was packed up and moved into storage.
And there it might have stayed if not for Lynn Bahrych, a commissioner with the Washington State Conservation Commission. She visited the exhibit in Washington, D.C., several times and vowed someday, somehow, to bring it to the Pacific Northwest.
In 2010 she shared her dream with Vicki Carter, operations manager of the Spokane Conservation District, and the two joined forces. Thanks to this revival, there are plans for the exhibit to resume traveling throughout the country.
While Carter and Bahrych focused on building a community partnership to sponsor the exhibit, Kennedy decided to focus - not surprisingly - on education.
Rich soil sustains life
"This is life in a jar,” Kennedy said, pointing to one of several samples of topsoil on her desk in Johnson Hall on the WSU Pullman campus. "It’s our past, it’s our present, it’s our future.”
Soil scientists such as Kennedy like to point out that there are more living organisms in one shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet. Rich soil sustains life, but overworked, degraded dirt doesn’t.
It’s a lesson Kennedy returns to repeatedly - if we protect the soil, the soil will sustain us. Here on the Palouse, over the past 100 years, conventional tillage-intensive farming practices have contributed to the loss of more than 50 percent of the region’s topsoil, typically the top two inches of dirt where the majority of microorganisms live.
The good news is that it can be built back up and many farmers are starting to do just that. The challenge is that more needs to be done and most people don’t even realize there is a problem.
Hence Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the "Dig It!” show: "To celebrate soil with this exhibit is phenomenal,” she said. "No one ever thinks to celebrate soil.”
School visits booked
In early 2011, Kennedy began working with Stacey Selcho and Eric Choker, both of the Spokane Conservation District, to create activities and lesson plans to help kindergarten through high school students learn about the chemistry, physics and biology of dirt. In July 2011, more than 90 teachers from the Inland Northwest attended a one-day seminar to learn about the exhibit and the teaching resources. Each of them left with a three-ring binder of materials.
At the MAC, student groups are scheduled Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; by the time the exhibit opened in February, all the slots were filled. Laura Thayer, MAC program manager, said the museum decided to schedule additional groups on Tuesday mornings, and those slots filled quickly as well.
Kennedy loves nothing more than digging in dirt and wanted to make sure students could share that experience. After spending about an hour touring the exhibit, students head to an adjacent work area where MAC staff and volunteers encourage them to get their hands dirty as they explore multiple facets of dirt.
Cara Spink, MAC education coordinator, said students seem to love the classroom activities. Digging in the worm bin has been very popular, she said; dirt painting, otherwise known as finger painting with mud, has been too.
"We’ve received more thank you letters for this program than any other I have worked on here at the MAC,” she said.
For high school students, Kennedy has coordinated a different set of activities. She recruited a small group of scientists and students from WSU, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Spokane Conservation District to share their knowledge and passion for soil.
"We bring with us a different set of soil analyses and compare soils across the landscape,” she said. This gives students an opportunity to see what soil scientists do; career development is another passion for Kennedy.
Science stretches arts museum
Born into poverty, Kennedy said her own aspirations were fueled by her mother, who told her education would be her path to a better life, and a woman scientist who visited her seventh grade classroom in St. Louis, Mo. That was the first time Kennedy realized that she could be a scientist, too.
Thayer, the MAC program manager, said bringing a soil exhibit to an arts and culture museum might be a stretch, but it has been a good stretch. Alongside exhibits about Impressionism and American Indian heritage and works from MAC’s permanent collection, "Dig It!” has expanded the way people think about culture, including agri-culture.
"We listened to our community, and people are showing up,” including many who are first-time visitors, Thayer said. "It’s doing exactly what we hoped it would do.”
Dirt can do a lot of things, but this might be the first time it’s been credited with re-energizing an arts and culture museum.
Kennedy, however, would not be surprised. Soil is the basis of life, she said. Civilizations that don’t protect their soil don’t survive, but those that do can flourish.
Smithsonian show supporters
"Dig It!” was organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was made possible by support from the Soil Science Society of America, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Nutrients for Life Foundation and the USDA. Local lead sponsors include the Washington State Conservation Commission, Spokane Conservation District, Numerica, J.R. Simplot, The McGregor Company and others.
WSU prof speaks May 19
"Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” will be at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture through Sept. 22. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Admission is $7 adults, $5 seniors (60+) and students. Children 5 and under are free. For more information about MAC exhibits, click here.
"Know Soil, Know Life” is the lecture series developed to accompany the exhibit. John Reganold, WSU Regents professor of soil science, the final speaker in the series, will give a talk titled "Toward a Sustainable Future” at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 19, at the museum.
The MAC is located at 2316 W. First Ave., Spokane. For more information, call 509-456-3931 or go here.
Contacts: Ann Kennedy, WSU Crop and Soil Sciences, email@example.com, 509-335-1554 Vicki Carter, Spokane Conservation District, firstname.lastname@example.org, 509-535-7274 Laura Thayer, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, email@example.com, 509-456-3931