Dirt drives Storm Lake cross-curriculum project

STORM LAKE – A summer road trip planted the seed for a cross-curricular project and partnership between Storm Lake St. Mary School and Buena Vista University.

While St. Mary’s fourth grade educator, Kaye Otto, and her husband, Gerrid, were on a summer road trip to Tennessee last summer, she was constantly brainstorming how to take advantage of their presence in several states and apply that to her classroom. She looked down.


Otto wanted to develop an interesting project that involved each of the 50 states and widen that out to encompass several disciplines for her students.


She gathered the first miniature hotel shampoo bottle filled with soil across the state line in Tennessee and pledged to collect as many samples as she could from each state once the school year began.

Once the 2014-15 school year began and the intent was discussed with her class, students took it upon themselves to reach out to friends and family who either lived in other states or were traveling, in order to cover each state. Students wrote letters, made calls, and soon packages began to arrive in homes and the school mailbox throughout the year, along with well-wishes, stories and background information about where the soil was collected.

Otto said some samples came from “famous” people, like the Duck Dynasty television show that sent each of the students a signed photographed copy of their cast and crew. They also received additional resources like the water sample received from the Gulf of Mexico, and soil from places of interest like the Dole Pineapple Plantation in Hawaii. Some simply came from back yards from people famous to that student.

By the end of April, the students had a soil sample from each state except Rhode Island, but that sample is coming from former Storm Lake residents Keith and Kristin Betts and their daughters who had attended St. Mary School.

Throughout the year, the students studied facts about natural resources, crop production, and each state as they collected the samples. What to do with all of the plastic bags and boxes of dirt? Study them!

Otto contacted Dr. Melinda Coogan, associate professor of biology at Buena Vista University about a joint project where the fourth graders would conduct scientific studies of their soils with the college students.

Coogan arranged with Bonnie Keller, BVU SCATE Advisor, (Students Concerned About Tomorrow’s Environment) for the student organization to help St. Mary’s students examine the soil, separate it into its components, determine Ph levels, and measure and record data. The students were able to test samples from each of the five regions of the United States, making their own selections of which states to test.

What did they discover?

Bethany Pariseau reported Alaska’s test results showed more sand than Hawaii.

“Mississippi soil feels soft without water, but gritty with water added,” noted Trihn Tran.

Lydia Tadesse pointed out Texas dirt was super rocky and not good for crop production.

The best type of soil to grow crops in?

John Heitman and Sydney Hurd concurred the answer was Iowa: medium acidity, a good combination of silt, sand and clay and loamy.


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