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Faculty Profile - Richard Stehouwer, Professor of Environmental Soil Science

Posted: October 7, 2017

Summer/Fall 2017, Issue No. 101

Richard “Rick” Stehouwer enjoys teaching—so much so that, by choice, it now accounts for 90% of his responsibilities.  

In contrast, he had no formal teaching responsibilities when he came to Penn State, joining the Agronomy faculty in August 1997.  He was hired as an extension specialist to address soil environmental issues including restoration of contaminated soils, mine reclamation, and land application of residual and by-product materials as soil amendments.  He came with seven years of experience as a research scientist at Ohio State, after having completed his Ph.D. in soil science there in 1990.  He earned an M.S. in Agronomy at Cornell in 1981, and between those two degrees he worked in agricultural extension and development in Liberia, West Africa.      

Stehouwer_Flight93_1Stehouwer_Flight93_2In recent years, Stehouwer has consulted with the National Park Service on the restoration and reclamation of the mined land site that is the Flight 93 National Memorial. Here is shown at the park entrance, and with sampling auger with the new visitor center in the background.

 

Stehouwer did not act on his interest in teaching until after he had earned tenure in 2003 and completed a six-month sabbatical in 2004, investigating organic waste collection and recycling systems in Austria and Germany. But his first step was a giant one.  He expressed interest in taking on responsibility for SOILS 101, Introductory Soil Science, when his colleague Dr. Daniel Fritton announced his retirement.

It was a giant step because SOILS 101 services 400+ students annually.  It is a foundational course—required or recommended for many environmental- and ag-related majors at Penn State, and it is also a “general education” course—fulfilling a natural science requirement for students in many other majors. 

When he started teaching SOILS 101 in spring 2007, Stehouwer tested several soils textbooks and settled on Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soils by N.C. Brady and R.R. Weil.

“This is a classic soils textbook that has gone through numerous iterations by several distinguished authors over almost a century,” explains Stehouwer. “Ray Weil has been the lead author of the most recent editions and teaches Introductory Soil Science at the University of Maryland.  When I began teaching SOILS 101, I spent a day with Weil, discussing soil science teaching and observing him in the classroom and teaching lab.”

The format of the course Stehouwer inherited was two 50-minute lectures and two lab hours per week.  Stehouwer felt that the short lab periods were constraining and resulted in lab exercises that were not as meaningful as they otherwise could be, given more time.  He also wanted more time to effectively deliver all the lecture material as well.  Additionally, since the lab was required of all enrolled students, seven or eight lab sections needed to be offered each semester. 

Upon completing the university’s course change process—including required consultation with other departments and units whose students enroll in the course—Stehouwer changed SOILS 101 to a three-credit lecture course in spring 2011, and created SOILS 102, a new one-credit introductory lab course.  Not every student is required to take the accompanying lab, but those who do have a more in-depth experience.

Stehouwer teaches SOILS 101 and 102 at University Park in both the fall and spring semesters, with an online, “e-learning” offering of SOILS 101 in fall semesters for Penn State students at other Commonwealth Campuses.  He also offers SOILS 101 via World Campus in the spring and summer semesters. 

The e-learning and World Campus versions of SOILS 101 actually include five labs.  For the first lab, students choose a site, take a soil sample, send it to a lab for analysis, and learn to read the results. The second lab includes digging an 18-24” soil pit and comparing the profile with what they see on a soil series map for the area. The remaining labs focus on water infiltration, land-use decisions, and soil fertility.

“My personal preference is teaching resident students,” says Stehouwer. “I think face-to-face instruction is more effective, and it is personally more rewarding.  I enjoy meeting and getting to know the students.  But I certainly appreciate that not everyone can be on campus, and online learning offers an opportunity they may not otherwise have.”

In fall 2013, shortly after the College of Agricultural Sciences’ restructuring that resulted in the creation of our current department (from components of the former School of Forest Resources and the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences), Stehouwer took on responsibility for FOR 475, Forest Soils, which had last been offered in spring 2010.  This upper-level course with relatively small enrollment—and almost exclusively forestry students—presented new challenges for Stehouwer, who does not have any professional forestry training.

FOR475students_1FOR475students_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students at work in FOR 475, Forest Soils

Students who enroll in FOR 475 have already completed SOILS 101 or its equivalent at another institution, but Stehouwer quickly realized that the students’ foundational knowledge needed to be refreshed.  Students scored about 50% on an initial assessment—essentially the SOILS 101 final exam—that he administered on the first day of class. 

The students’ primary interest at the outset of the course, perhaps not surprisingly, is how soil impacts forest management decisions.  Stehouwer shifts their focus to first learning about how the soil impacts the type of forest that is in place, and then to exploring the ramifications of forest management on soils — for example, how do fire, harvests, erosion and sedimentation control, and forest regeneration practices impact soils. 

Five field labs are an important part of FOR 475. The trips provide opportunities for students to see soil profiles and relate soil characteristics and properties to tree growth and production; to look at erosion and sedimentation provisions on a timber sale; to learn more about water, nutrient, and carbon cycling; and to visit a mining reclamation site re-established with trees.

“An ongoing challenge in the field,” says Stehouwer, “is to get the forestry students to look down and not up!”

Stehouwer added SOILS 071, Environmental Sustainability, to his teaching repertoire in spring 2015.  SOILS 071 was created by Stehouwer’s colleague Jason Kaye in spring 2007 to provide an introduction to environmental sustainability for students with no background in environmental science or soils. It is not required for any major, and it does not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. 

“SOILS 071 is a fun course to teach,” says Stehouwer. “I can push the students to think about the issues and about how soil science contributes to environmental sustainability. Since the class size is limited to 28, we can have in-class discussions.  A smaller class would be even better, but that would mean that even more students who want to take the course would not be able to.  The class fills up each time we offer it.”

In addition to being a natural science general education course, SOILS 071 is designated as an International Cultures selection. Stehouwer’s work abroad in Liberia, Israel, Ecuador, Bolivia, Austria and Germany has given him considerable first-hand experience to share with students as they explore environmental challenges and solutions that cross political and cultural boundaries.  About a third of the course addresses international issues and questions.

“Ah ha! moments often come a few years after students have taken one of my courses,” explains Stehouwer. “They may be out in their first professional job and confront a soils-related problem, question, or issue. They’ll write to me to say something along the lines of ‘… because I took your course I knew more about the situation than my colleagues, or was able to address the problem, or was able to impress my boss.’ This is what makes teaching such a rewarding profession.”

Richard Stehouwer
Professor of Environmental Soil Science

Hometown: Cadillac, Michigan is where my family settled when I was 12 years old. Before that we lived in a small town in (at that time) a remote part of Nigeria.

Alma Mater:
Ph.D. Soil Science, Ohio State University, 1990
M.S, Agronomy, Cornell University, 1981
B.S. Biology, Calvin College, 1977

Areas of Expertise:
Composting and compost utilization
Mined land reclamation
Restoration of degraded soils
Biomass crop production on marginal lands

Time at Penn State:  20 years

Work Abroad:
Agricultural extension and development in Liberia
Saline soil restoration in Israel
Conservation agriculture production systems research in Ecuador and Bolivia

Current Teaching Responsibilities:
SOILS 071, Environmental Sustainability
SOILS 101, Introductory Soil Science
SOILS 102, Introductory Soil Science Laboratory
SOILS 489, Supervised Experience in College Teaching
FOR 475, Principles of Forest Soils Management

Favorite book:
Daniel Hillel’s book, Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, was published when I was a Post-Doc, a year or two after I finished my Ph.D. and had a profound impact on how I think about, teach about and research soils. Hillel writes powerfully about the history of how mankind’s use and misuse of soil and the consequences for numerous civilizations.

Favorite soil series?
Well, Hazleton is the Pennsylvania State Soil so of course that is a favorite. This soil has formed on acid sandstone parent material, occurs mostly on our ridges and mountains and almost all of it is covered by forest. Another favorite would be the Rubicon where I grew up in Northern Michigan. This is a sandy Spodosol with a really striking profile: a thin dark A horizon, a bleached, almost white E horizon and a rust, orange colored Bs horizon. It is also almost all forested. Probably the most fascinating soils I’ve worked on are the volcanic ash derived Andisols in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. These are deep, dark, high organic matter, incredibly friable soils. Absolutely beautiful!

How I got interested in soils:
My Master’s degree was in Agronomy and focused on small grains production. I took soils courses in that program and was even a soils TA. But I have to say I did not really get “interested” in soils until I was doing agricultural development work in Liberia and realized most of the production problems I was encountering were soils related. Soils were at the root of it all. I decided my Ph.D. would be in Soil Science.