Hiram College

Associate professor and chair of environmental studies Debbie Kasper, Ph.D. has found a new love: exploring soil ecosystems. She returned to school this summer to take “Life in the Soils,” a series of online courses that examine soil biology and composting strategies to restore damaged lands.

Creator of the courses, microbiologist Elaine Ingham, Ph.D. stresses the difference between soil and dirt. Dirt consists of the mineral components of the soil such as sand, silt, and clay. Soil, according to Dr. Ingham, is a complex living ecosystem—the mineral components plus organic matter and organisms.

“We have a lot of dirt that needs to be turned into soil,” Dr. Kasper says.

The premise of the class series: Through the understanding of soil biology systems, soil systems of any scale can be restored very rapidly, increasing productivity, and environmental and human health. “It’s ironic,” Dr. Kasper says, that “soil is the basis of our food web. Yet so much of the food we produce is wasted and goes to the landfill. By composting it, we can be feeding the soil that feeds us.”

In America, an estimated 40 percent of food produced is wasted. That totals nearly 35 million tons of food and $165 billion each year. Improperly disposed of food waste ends up in landfills, releasing methane and other harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Composting food waste helps solve these problems while it restores soils.

Part of the work of restoring soil involves examining your soil biology. “I’m learning how to identify different types of soil microorganisms—the good guys and the bad guys. The idea is knowing the recipe of what you need and what’s there. You can then add what is needed to create the right balance for what you’re trying to grow,” says Dr. Kasper.

A sociologist by training, Kasper says she looks forward to learning more about evaluating soil samples under the microscope. Like many Hiram professors, Dr. Kasper’s interests are not limited to the academic field in which she was trained.  Hiram faculty teach by example, in addition to the usual kind of teaching in the classroom, says Kasper. “They model the broad curiosity we want to see in Hiram students, and are able draw important connections across subjects―like soil and society, for example,” she says.

Not only is soil amazing and fascinating, but it is the basis of all human civilizations, says Dr. Kasper.  She points to historical research that shows how the collapse of many human civilizations was due to the destruction of their soil. Without healthy soil, societies cannot sustain themselves.

As her courses continue, Dr. Kasper says she is learning more about how to remediate the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on soil and food. Ultimately, these products harm the microorganisms in the soil, beginning the process of turning it into dirt. Compost or compost teas and extracts (organic supplements made from aged compost steeped in water) done correctly, are beneficial alternatives to fertilizers, she says.

As summer progresses Dr. Kasper she says she will explore the possibilities of bringing composting to campus and incorporating what she’s learning about soil into some of her other classes. She recalls her professor, Dr. Ingham, pointing out that most people know more about the composition of the stars above them than the soils beneath them. Dr. Kasper wants to change that.