49-Who Cares about Dirt? (Env.

Science)
Names (4):__________________________________________________________________

Background:
As we began to see in Dirt!: The Movie, the fate of humans
has always been intrinsically connected to the resource we call
‘dirt’. The abiotic nutrients and minerals in soil are essential
aspects of the geosphere that support all life. Today we will be
testing samples of dirt from our terrariums to see what we can
find out…

Goals:
1. Examine the physical structure of our dirt samples

2. Conduct three chemical tests of our dirt samples (pH, phosphate, and nitrogen)

A. Physical Properties of Soil
Soil Texture is an essential characteristic of soil, defined by the relative amounts of sand, silt and clay
within the soil. Depending on the texture of the soil, the capacity to store nutrients and water varies.

 Sandy soil (big particle size) drains well and has space for air, but does not store nutrients or
support roots well.
 Silty soil (medium particle size) holds water fairly well, but does not hold nutrients extensively
 Clay soil (small particle size) holds water and nutrients well, but clumps together and has little
space for air.

Questions
1. Describe the texture of your soil.

2. Based on soil texture, do you think your soil would support life? Why or why not?

B. Chemical Properties of Soil
Just as the physical nature of soil is significant, the chemical conditions of soil are essential. We will
do three tests.
 Acidity (pH): Influences solubility of nutrients and microorganism viability; ideal range is 6-7
 Phosphates: Needed for root growth and production of flowers/fruit; ideal range is 2-4 ppm
 Nitrates: Needed for healthy leaf growth and green leaves; ideal range is 10-25 ppm

Materials (at table)
 Terrarium (Dirt) Materials (in front ONLY)
 Spoon  Sharpies
 5 Test Tubes + Test Tube Holder  Rulers
 1 Rubber Stopper  Chemical Test Tablets
 10 mL Graduated Cylinder  Vinegar
Initial Set-Up
1. Using a marker, mark each of your test tubes with two lines. The first line will be about 1 cm
from the BOTTOM, and the second will be about 6.5 cm from the BOTTOM.
2. Label three test tubes: pH, N, and P.
3. Use a spoon to add dirt from your terrarium to the bottom line on each of the three test tubes.

Testing pH [1 test tube]
4. In the pH test tube, add water until the top line.
5. Obtain one pH test-tablet from the front of the room. Add the pH test-tablet to the water.
6. Stopper the test-tube and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Afterwards, let the test-tube sit for
2-3 minutes while the soil settles.
7. Rinse the stopper.
8. Compare the color of the liquid in the pH test tube to the color comparison chart. Record the
approximate pH in Table 1.

Testing Phosphates [2 test tubes]
9. Add 1 mL of vinegar (front of the room) to the dirt in the P-tube.
10. Add water to the test-tube until it reaches the top line.
11. Stopper the test-tube and shake vigorously for one minute. Allow the soil to settle for 3
minutes.
12. Transfer 5 mL of the liquid from this test-tube to an unlabeled empty test-tube. Add a
Phosphate test-tablet to this liquid.
13. Again, add the stopper to the test tube and shake for one minute.
14. Use the color comparison chart and record the approximate Phosphate level in Table 1.
15. Rinse the stopper.

Testing Nitrates [2 test tubes]
16. Add 1 mL of vinegar (front of the room) to the dirt in the N-tube.
17. Add water to the test-tube until it reaches the top line.
18. Stopper the test-tube and shake vigorously for one minute. Allow the soil to settle for 3
minutes.
19. Transfer 5 mL of the liquid from this test-tube to an unlabeled empty test-tube. Add a Nitrate
test-tablet to this liquid.
20. Again, add the stopper to the test tube and shake for one minute.
21. Use the color comparison chart and record the approximate Nitrate level in Table 1.

**Rinse the stopper and all test tubes! DO NOT THROW DIRT DOWN THE SINK. Return all
othermaterials to the blue container. **

Table 1: Chemical Properties of Soil
pH Phosphate Level Nitrate Level

Questions (cont):
3. Is the pH of the soil acidic or basic? How would this affect life?
4. Are the nitrate and phosphate levels suitable for plant growth? Would you need to add fertilizer if
you wanted to farm in this soil?

5. Compare your soil’s physical and chemical properties to another groups. What are the similarities
and differences? Which would be better for farming and why?

6. Excess nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers often end up as runoff that seep into bodies of
water. Why might this become problematic? (Hint: It was discussed in Dirt: The Movie)

7. In what ways is dirt an essential resource for human society? Why is it so undervalued?