Soil Your Undies – Wrap it Up!

This week is undie excavation week, and in the wise words of challenge collaborator Dr. Oliver Knox, it’s time to liberate our pants!

207 citizen science groups joined us on the three month Soil Your Undies Challenge journey, undertaking a rather peculiar way of exploring soil health as they buried a pair of cotton underpants, discovering soil health through a series of educational checkpoints before reaching the time they have all been waiting for – undie excavation/exhumation/liberation and revealing the final results.

For those that have only just heard of the project, the 2020 Soil Your Undies Challenge is a collaboration between Dr Oliver Knox, CottonInfo, UNE SMART Farms and UNE Discovery, and aims to increase awareness and understanding of soil health through exploring soil health concepts in a novel and fun way, and encouraging participants to share their experiences. But, what have cotton undies got to do with soil health? Cotton is made of a sugar called cellulose and the tiny decomposers in the soil love to eat it, working together to break down the cellulose into smaller sugars they can use for energy. So, by burying 100% cotton undies in our gardens/crops/fields, we can explore how healthy our soils are by looking at how much of the undies are left after an eight-week period. If there’s not much left 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. Once analysed by the soil science team here at UNE, the undies will be uploaded to CottonInfo’s interactive map allowing participants to gauge the health of their soil against others around the country.

The reach of the citizen science project far surpassed any expectation. With the help of CottonInfo, Cotton Australia and Science Play Kids, entries flooded in from all parts of Australia. Still in the midst of lockdowns and the flow-on effects of the pandemic, undies were quickly snapped up by those learning from home, looking to add a little curiosity and STEAM to their routine.

Educational checkpoints throughout the challenge added to the scientific engagement of the eight-week period, giving participants the opportunity to understand more about the health of their soil at home or school. Using the resources provided, participants were able to test the pH of the soil where undies were buried, explore soil texture and undertake a worm hunt to unearth the wriggly creatures that provide our soils with so much. Overall, these activities allowed our participants to gain more of an insight into soil science and make predictions surrounding the overall health of their soil.

The value of this challenge as a citizen science project has shown itself in more ways than one. It has allowed 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. Other than contributing valuable data to real-world research, participants also gained practical experiences and of the soil science realm, and developed an understanding of experimental methods. This wasn’t limited to the expected age range for such activities. Part way into the challenge, we received a fantastic submission into the Soil Your Undies portal showcasing a series of hypothesis developed to predict the degradation of the underpants over the challenge period. A submission by a senior student, you might think. However, the submission was made by Footscray Public School students in Year 1. This goes to show the incredible capacity of children to increase their breadth of knowledge when engaged, regardless of age.

We love watching all the fabulous soiled undie submissions enter our Discovery inbox. Even through difficult years like we have experienced in 2020, parents and educators continue to strive for engaging opportunities for their children, opening their eyes to the world of science. We hope we have helped with this curious scientific journey and we can’t wait for many more.

For those waiting patiently to liberate their undies, we can’t wait to see your soil health discoveries!

Congratulations to Kay-linn and Ariana Dyer from Petrie in Queensland as winners of our Soil Your Undies participation prize.  Check out the decomposition of those undies!