Learn why soil is so important, how it’s being threatened and what we can do to protect this natural resource so vital to our lives. Soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life. We depend on soil to build our homes and cities, to grow crops for food and raise livestock, to support transportation and enable recreation. Yet we disregard this crucial and precious resource that lies right under our feet.
This introductory environmental studies course will explore the importance of soil to life on earth, the issues, processes and societal challenges underlying soil degradation – and what can be done to ensure sustainable soil management for the future. The threats to our soil span deforestation, erosion, overgrazing, use of agrochemicals, pollution and climate change. Learn what you can do to make a difference in protecting this vital natural resource.
What you'll learn:
- Why soils and sustainable soil management are so important to life on earth
- How soils form, their functions and basics of soil degradation
- Threats to and caring for: Soil water relations, soil fertility and soil biodiversity
- Effects of and solutions for: Soil erosion, soil pollution and soil salinization
- Socio-economic and policy aspects of sustainable soil management
- How you can help protect this critical natural resource
Module 1: Soil formation, functions and threats
This is an introduction to the MOOC, introducing you to why soils are so important and the major issues/threats related to soil. After this module you’ll be able to name key soil functions and the roles that soils play as well as some of the leading soil degradation issues around the world. You will learn how soils are formed and about some key soil characteristics. This is the first obligatory module to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll identify soil functions in a landscape, and learn how to determine the basic texture and structure of soil in your own environment. You’ll also be able to practice retrieving soil data from the ISRIC SoilGrids.
Module 2: Soil water processes
This module will explain the importance of soil water processes for soil functions and services. It will teach you about fundamental soil water processes and factors involved. We will show you the causes, consequences, and concerns of reduced soil wettability, compaction and soil sealing, and the potential for avoiding and correcting them. This is an obligatory module to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll put theory into practice by at home demonstrations to see the key topics, and by looking for evidence of the key topics in your own surroundings.
Module 3: Dynamics of soil fertility
This module is about the dynamics of soil fertility and importance of soil organic matter. This module will teach you what determines soil fertility, which nutrients are needed for the growth of plants, and summarize the processes that cause a loss of soil fertility and the effects of that. It will show you what nutrient surpluses and nutrient deficits are. You will learn about the role of soil organic matter in nutrient dynamics, soil water holding capacity and climate change mitigation, as well as the threats to soil organic matter. This module will give you examples of environmental consequences and how to reduce phosphorus losses from agricultural soils. This is an obligatory module to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll start your own pot experiment and observe the effect of soil nutrients on plant growth.
Module 4: Loss of soil biodiversity
We will show you the main groups of soil organisms and how they interact. This module will explain the relation between soil biodiversity and soil functions, and summarize the processes that cause a loss of soil biodiversity and their effects. You will also hear about measures and strategies to prevent and resolve the loss of soil biodiversity. This is an obligatory module to be able to earn a certificate. In this module you’ll get into the field and discover the rich life under our feet by executing simple tests.
Module 5: Water erosion
This module will explain the processes involved in water erosion, the causes of water erosion and its effects on soil functions. We will share with you the measures and strategies to prevent and resolve water erosion. This is an elective module, you need to elect at least two to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll investigate the types and causes of water erosion present in your environment.
Module 6: Wind erosion
This module will explain the processes involved in wind erosion, the causes of wind erosion and its effects on soil functions. We will share with you the measures and strategies to prevent and resolve wind erosion. This is an elective module, you need to elect at least two to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll build your own mini wind tunnel to put theory into practice and test how erodible different types of soil are and the effectiveness of some counter measures.
Module 7: Soil pollution
In this module we’ll make a distinction between point pollution and diffuse pollution. We will explain the main sources of soil pollution, how different pollutants behave in the soil and why it’s important to know about the natural background levels of heavy metals in soils. This module will share with you how soil properties affect pollutants, and also explain the concept and importance of bioavailability of heavy metals in soil. Finally this module will introduce you to dose-response relationships and how they can be used. In the end we provide an overview of some soil remediation techniques and explain the concept of phytoremediation. This module is an elective module, you need to elect at least two to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll be asked to visit your local farm store to discover what chemicals are used in your environment.
Module 8: Soil salinization
We’ll explain the process of salinization, the causes of salinization and the effects on soil functions. This module will show you the value of the Leaching Requirement equation for managing soil salinization. Finally we will share with you measures and strategies to prevent and resolve salinization. This module is an elective module, you need to elect at least two to be able to earn a certificate. During this module you’ll follow the experiment of Dr. Ritzema and discover the influence of salt on soils and plants.
Module 9: Achieving sustainable soil management
We will introduce you to the factors that influence farmers’ decisions about farming practices. This module will teach you how to execute a cost benefit analysis (CBA) and a multi criteria analysis (MCA). We will discuss how to achieve sustainable soil management at farm and landscape level, and also the role scenario analysis and the concept of scaling-up. Finally this module will cover the role of public policies in sustainable soil management. This is an obligatory module to be able to earn a certificate. In this module you’ll play the African Highland Farmer Game and learn how challenging it can be to sustainably manage your plot of land. You’ll also discover sustainable land management in your own country.
Module 10: Final exam
Module 10 contains the final exam and concludes this MOOC. While studying the previous modules you have learned a lot about the issues, processes and societal challenges underlying soil health, soil degradation and sustainable soil management. One of the main goals of this course was to introduce you to information and tools that will motivate you to contribute to ensuring sustainable soil management for the future. You’ll be asked to synthetize the information acquired in the MOOC in a case study and present a plan of action that inspires the target audience. You’ll critically evaluate the contributions of peers and give constructive feedback. The main topic is soil degradation in your environment and how to effectively reduce and reverse that through more sustainable soil management.