Soil Your Undies

By Dr Andrea Jaggi

You may have seen a creatively named challenge making its way through the ether lately. So, what’s it all about?

The 2020 Soil Your Undies Challenge is a collaboration between Dr Oliver Knox, CottonInfo, UNE SMART Farms and UNE Discovery. The original concept of ‘Soil Your Undies’ is a fun and engaging citizen science project, conceived and established by the University of New England (UNE)’s Dr Oliver Knox and CottonInfo. It aims to increase awareness and understanding of soil health, exploring soil health concepts in a novel and fun way, and encouraging participants to share their experiences.

We at UNE Discovery decided to take this one step further, aiming to create broadscale engagement of school age children Australia-wide, providing them with the opportunity to contribute valuable data to research. After launching the challenge on 14 September, we have since received an overwhelming response, with 205 citizen science groups signing up to participate in the challenge from southern Tasmania, to northern Queensland, far western WA and everywhere in between.

This challenge is an opportunity for citizens to become scientists, and not only collect data themselves, but to learn about soil acidity and alkalinity (pH), texture, and the organisms that make up our soil biology. But, how on earth can soiling undies be contributing valuable data to research? Did you know that there are billions of tiny organisms in just one handful of soil? Some of these critters are called ‘decomposers’ because they eat dead plant and animal material for energy, breaking it down and returning nutrients to the soil for plants to use. We call this process decomposition. Decomposition is a sign of healthy soil because it indicates that nutrients and carbon are cycling through the soil, and biological activity is high.

Cotton is made of a sugar called cellulose and the tiny decomposers love to eat it, working together to break down the cellulose into smaller sugars they can use for energy. So, by using 100% cotton undies, we can explore how healthy our soils are by looking at how much of the undies are left after two months! If there’s not much left of the undies there is good biological activity, which indicates healthy soil. By analysing our undies, scientists are able to explore soil health around different parts of Australia, and use the data collected for other research projects surrounding soil health.

This week is undie burial week, and is the all important time-frame in which participants must bury their undies to ensure we can exhume them before term 4 concludes. All challenge participants must bury their undies for a period of eight weeks, to guarantee experimental validity. Results will vary among locations, but we can’t wait to see the finished products!

If you missed out on a place in the challenge, never fear, UNE SMART Farms will drive the technology side of challenge, developing a telemetry system to observe a buried pair of underpants at the UNE SMART Farm, ‘Kirby’, via a live stream. This provides an opportunity for our broader Discovery community to view how their underpants might be degrading over time, while also discovering the technology utilised in current research. Keep an eye on our website this week to view the timelapse.

Additionally, over the challenge period we will be providing educational checkpoints that all can be involved in, and encourage your curious young ones to think about the importance of soil health and explore these ideas in your backyard or school grounds. Keep an eye on our website for the release of these checkpoints.

Citizen science projects, such as our Soil your Undies Challenge, play an integral role in the world of science. They allow for public participation and collaboration in scientific research, while encouraging our communities to look at the world around them a little differently and increase scientific knowledge. The Australian Citizen Science Association, in consultation with members, have developed ’10 Principles of Citizen Science’ that explores the benefits of individuals participating in citizens science projects and contributing meaningful data to research. You can explore the Principles here.

If it’s not our Soil Your Undies challenge, we encourage you to participate in citizen science projects that may be happening near you. Head to the Australian Citizen Science Associations Project Finder for more information and to be involved.