Soil judging team qualifies for nationals

2023 Illinois Soil Judging Team holding a flag with a block I
2023 Illinois Soil Judging Team

Soils are not just key to crop production and food security. They form the literal foundation supporting homes, roads, septic systems, and other essential infrastructure. That’s why students in NRES 285, a laboratory and field soil judging course, learn to identify important physical properties of soil. And they’re good at it. The Illinois Soil Judging Team qualified for the 2024 National Collegiate Soils Competition to be held in April.

Placing fourth overall in the Region III Soil Judging Contest, hosted by Purdue University and Indiana NRCS in October, earned the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign team a spot in the national competition. The team was led by Liz Miernicki and assistant coach Scott Wiesbrook, both soil scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey, part of the Prairie Research Institute.

The soil judging course is offered in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U. of I. In the course, students learn to describe, interpret, and classify soil profiles based on varying soil properties and landscape features. Students use their knowledge of these physical properties to recognize limitations relative to homes with basements, traditional septic system absorption fields, and local roads and streets.

“The competition portion of the class is a fun and excellent opportunity to apply all skills learned throughout the first half of the semester,” Miernicki said. “Often this course is the first-time students are exposed to soil judging, so qualifying for nationals is extra special!”

During the regional competition, students described multiple types of Alfisols (soils formed under forest vegetation) and Mollisols (soils formed under prairie vegetation), both of which are common in East Central Illinois. U. of I. students competed against eight other Midwestern colleges.

Every year, students enrolled at an Illinois college or university can win the Burton W. Ray Scholarship Award in Soil Science. The award was developed in 1984 by the Illinois Soil Classifiers Association in honor of Burton W. Ray, a charter member of the organization. Burt was a U. of I. graduate and began his career as a soil scientist in 1946 with the Soil Conservation Service and later with the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. In 1948, he joined the Illinois Soil Survey as a Research Assistant of the Department of Agronomy at the U. of I. He went on to become Assistant Professor of Pedology in 1960 and Associate Professor of Pedology in 1970.

The award is given in Burt Ray’s memory to a college student who achieved the highest individual score in the regional competition for that year. In 2023, U. of I.’s Joshua D’Avola was the winner of the Burton W. Ray Scholarship Award in Soil Science. 

Joshua D’Avola holding plaque
Burton W. Ray Scholarship in Soil Science winner, Joshua D'Avola

“This semester was the first time Joshua learned about soil judging,” Miernicki said. “Congratulations, Joshua!”

Interested in donating to fund the U. of I. soil judging team’s trip to nationals? Email Liz Miernicki at

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