Tony Hartshorn

Soil Doc engaging college students and grade-schoolers

Ph.D. soil scientist Tony Hartshorn’s enthusiasm for his work, research and students is apparent with every word he speaks.

“I thought I was put on this planet to get people excited about dirt,” he said. “But now I’m thinking that my real calling may be trying to figure how we can be more effective at recruiting people to love soil.”

Which isn’t hard after only a few minutes with Hartshorn, even though he insists that soil isn’t sexy, and soil scientists are the Rodney Dangerfields of academia.

soil samplesNot surprising since, in his own words, it all comes down to the acronym BLAH, “I teach at the intersection of the Biosphere, Lithosphere, Atmosphere and Hydrosphere.”

In the span of only a few years at MSU, Hartshorn has had a hand in designating the Scobey Soil as Montana’s state soil (something only 21 other states have done), rebuilding the soils lab in Leon Johnson Hall, working and inspiring fourth graders to become scientists afterschool in their school playgrounds and classrooms, and researching, along with his graduate students how the soils in Bozeman are highly influenced by dust blown into the valley.

According to Hartshorn, the legislation was a team effort by the fourth graders and their teachers at Longfellow Elementary in Bozeman and the brainchild of Jerry Nielsen, professor emeritus and “an 80-year-old kid.”

Hartshorn and his colleagues wanted to elevate the soil in the minds of the public.

“Our effort speaks to the invisibility of this resource that sustains us,” Hartshorn said. “We grow beef and wheat from the dirt. Soils in our state are the foundation of billions of dollars in revenue. So making Scobey Soil a designation, to put it on the maps tourists will pick up at gas stations around the state, is to make soil more visible—in a subtle way.”

Another big goal for Hartshorn is to get younger students thinking about science and doing research.

A grade school student tests snow.“We’ve been working with Hyalite, Whittier and Monforton elementary schools, using technology to do research after class,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to bring neat sensor technology into a schoolyard to get the students to visualize invisible stuff and engage them in science.” So he brought in carbon dioxide sensors, “I’m big on carbon literacy and connecting who you are as a person to this planet we all share.”

With MSU graduate students, Hartshorn wants to use the landscape to help them understand what makes the soil tick, to use the soil as a way to understand the past, “like a time machine.” Soils are constantly being overprinted with whatever happened on the surface, he said, “so how do we read the past, by looking at the soil? I want to train the more advanced students to be better readers of landscape by becoming better readers of the soil.”

Through whatever channel Hartshorn is working, on whatever ground he’s standing, you can be sure he’s connecting at some level with students.

“There’s magic in soil and people don’t appreciate that,” Hartshorn said. “What I’m trying to do is to figure out the sneakiest way to make someone not be able to get soils out of their minds.”