Perspectives Online

Soil science researcher works on prototype of national soils map

As N.C. State's distance learning projects proliferate, professors who post course materials online run into problems due to fundamental material duplication, which wastes time and effort.

Using the "wiki" model, an open-source development environment, Dr. David Crouse, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Soil Science, is developing an easily accessible approach that allows agricultural educators anywhere to collaborate on learning material development. (The project "OpenAg.Info" is at http://openag.info)

One of the project's current goals is to create and distribute courseware components focused on precision farming applications, says Crouse, the College's geographic information science Extension specialist.

"These are freely available for download," he says, "so anyone can incorporate the courseware into courses and Extension workshops. We encourage educators to contribute their materials to the project to be available for others to use as well.

"Developing the project isn't a trivial process," Crouse says. "But now, instead of many people creating copies of similar basic content, they can spend that time and effort improving basic content so as to reach more complicated topics."

For instance, he notes, "We just released a gallery so people can submit photos to share, as well as decide which ones to use." The gallery now includes more than 900 photos, with more added monthly.

"Over time," Crouse says, "we think OpenAg.Info project will become a central repository of materials used in a variety of agricultural educational programs. Many pieces evolve almost daily as new authors contribute their ideas and share resources. Although the formal project is in its fifth and final year, we expect it to continue for many more and don't expect it to ever really be completed."

In fact, a group of Soil Science Department graduate students recently launched the Soil Science Encyclopedia as part of the OpenAg.Info effort. "This new branch of the OpenAg.Info project shows just how easy it is to contribute," Crouse says.

Another popular project area is a data download section to which Crouse has added about 2,700 digital soil surveys from around the country. The data sets are formatted for most geographic information systems.

"It's a value-added product," Crouse says. "We have taken existing soil surveys and incorporated some intelligence into them, such as soil science surveys available with interpretations specific to precision agriculture."

Soil-mapping data already available include such information as depth-to-water table, bedrock, percentage of sand, silt and clay, irrigation rate, drought tolerance, acidity or alkalinity and projected yields for 20 crops.

- Art Latham