While basketball fans were watching college hoops the last weekend in March, a team of Virginia Tech soil science students made a slam dunk of their own when they won the National Collegiate Soil Judging Championship in Morgantown, W.Va.

“This is the Final Four of soil science competitions,” said John Galbraith, an associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who coached the team. “The contest is both physically- and mentally-challenging and our students rose to the occasion and did an outstanding job. We couldn’t be more proud of them.”

The Virginia Tech Soil Judging Team finished in first place out of 21 teams and more than 125 contestants. This win marks the fourth time that Virginia Tech has taken home the prestigious trophy which has been passed around some of the top universities over the years. The Soil Science Society of America sponsors the contest, now in its 52nd year. Virginia Tech has now won the event twice in three years. 

“We are very proud of the accomplishments of these students,” said Alan Grant, dean of the college. “This is yet another great example of how our students are excelling within the academic world and preparing themselves for challenging and rewarding careers that await them.”

The students spent hours in practice pits over a four-day period when they slogged sampling equipment through forests and fields to perform a number of tests for the competition. The students had to measure soil color and shape; separate soil profiles into horizons and name them; estimate the texture, rock fragments, structure, and record color patterns that indicate water table height; record landscape properties; and classify each soil. Students’ answers were compared to the soil descriptions of a team of experts.

“Relating soil properties to ecosystem services and best management practices is invaluable,” Galbraith said. “The competition is a perfect preparation for the job market.”

To find proof that the competition is a good primer for the real world, you need look no further than Chris Heltzel of Maurertown, Va., who won third place in the individual competition. After winning the award, Heltzel, a junior and a crop and soil environmental sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was offered a job as a soil scientist with Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Kelly McMillen of Chesapeake, Va., a senior environmental science major, won sixth place in the individual competition.

Heather Taylor of Blacksburg, Va., a senior environmental science major, placed tenth.

Virginia Tech’s team was made up of Heltzel; Taylor; McMillan; Austin Gardner of Round Hill, Va., a senior crop and environmental sciences major; Blake Krejci of Vienna, Va., a senior environmental science major; and Melanie Latalik of Fairfax, Va., a senior environmental science major.

After the contest, Galbraith inspired his students with a modified quote from the great basketball player Pete Maravich.

“Love never fails; character never quits,” he said. “With prior preparation, proper priorities, patience, and persistence, dreams do come true.”



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