Students assess soil as part of urban soils and ecosystem class. Credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Basta

It’s a Monday afternoon and about 30 Ohio State students are scattered around an empty North Campus lot on Cordell Avenue, sticking equipment into the ground and scribbling notes on clipboards.

The sight might be curious for pedestrians who walk by, but to the urban soils and ecosystem students, this is a typical class period.

Professor Nick Basta and associate professor Brian Slater helped launch the environmental science course five years ago that allows students to evaluate urban soil and determine steps for a return to fertility.

Growing food in urban areas is a trend aiming to create affordable, nutritious food to city dwellers who might not have access to a nearby supermarket.

“We wanted to create a class that did not result in death by PowerPoint,” Basta said. “It’s not a flipped class, but it is different than any other course I’ve taught.”

The class style is something Basta said he hopes will become a model for many others in the environmental science department. There are no tests or quizzes. Instead, students are graded by the quality of field reports they create. The reports, which detail possible modifications to soil, are sent to Columbus’ Land Redevelopment Division.

“We are here to guide them, not tell them what to do,” Basta said. “They can be as creative as they want to be with these reports. The whole dynamic of the classroom changes with a class like this.”

In the near future, Basta hopes to develop a follow-up course in which the students will grow crops based off their recommendations from the first course.

The urban soil development course is composed of students with different majors, such as biochemical engineering and agricultural studies.

The course benefits more than just its students, though. In fact, it might have a greater impact on Columbus, and the suburbs that surround the city.

Urban development is growing throughout the state and country, which reduces the amount of usable farmland. Columbus identifies sites where property has been demolished for the students to assess, in the hope the land can be used for food production instead of going to waste.

Similar programs have been implemented in Cleveland and Detroit; Ohio State’s Department of Environmental Science was asked for input and opinion in both cities.

Slater and Basta said their mission as part of a land-grant university is to interact with the community, in whatever way the department can.

“It’s a two-way street, you really feel like you’re a part of Columbus, and of course Columbus has already given back to us,” Basta said.

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.