Summer 2019

The secrets of soil

Autumn Boxum emerges from the U’s practice pit, which gives students a close-up look at soil layers.
Photography by LIz Banfield

What’s in Autumn Boxum’s backpack? “A color book,” says the 2019 environmental sciences, policy, and management grad. 

The guide to soil colors is an essential tool for soil judging, a competition in which students climb into prepared pits, analyze various aspects of the soil, and determine its suitability for various uses (septic tanks or roads, for example). The students whose answers come closest to those of faculty experts who have analyzed the same pits win. 

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” says Boxum. “It’s very hands-on stuff that you would never learn in the classroom.”

A color book provides a standardized way to describe and compare soil colors.

Boxum finished first in a national soil judging competition in April; the U’s team also took the top spot in the team category. She says her experience in these contests led to the job she landed after graduation: doing soil mapping for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wyoming. She’ll be out in the field, analyzing soil to help ranchers determine how much grazing their cattle can do in a given area. 

She says receiving the Dave and Pat Johnson Scholarship allowed her to focus on meaningful learning experiences outside of class. In addition to being part of the soil judging team, Boxum played the French horn and mellophone in the U’s marching band. 

 “My parents contributed, I contributed, and I got loans, but having scholarships takes so much of the burden off,” she says.