Soil Your Undies

By Kieran Meaney, UNE Discovery

Over the last 6 months UNE Discovery, Cotton Info, and the UNE Smart Farm have undertaken a mammoth project. After the surprise success of the 2020 Soil Your Undies challenge, we were emboldened to make it bigger and better the second time around.

When we opened our registrations in July, our 300 available places were snapped up amazingly fast by student groups all across Australia: from Broome to Byron Bay, from Hobart to Cairns, we covered Australia in soiled undies.

In the last weeks of July, the Discovery team banded together to assemble 300 soil pH kits, hand make 300 Soil Your Undies flags, and fold up 300 pairs of undies. We certainly gave the staff at the post office quite a shock when we rolled in with all of those packages!

As National Science Week approached in mid August, we got our shovels ready to soil our undies! Many teachers had to get a little creative as schools closed and strict COVID lockdowns set in. Armidale and UNE locked down the week before we buried the undies leading Kieran, like so many teachers in locked down areas, to bury his undies in his own backyard. Fortunately, our participants in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania didn’t have to navigate covid issues on the same magnitude.

As our undies slowly decomposed, our educational checkpoints continued some thought provoking engagement. The first checkpoint was looking at the clothing fibres that we wear every day. We looked at what our clothes were made of, whether those fibres were natural or synthetic, and how long those clothes would take to break down. Hopefully we have inspired some more thoughtful clothing purchases for the future that will leave less impact on the environment.

The second of our educational checkpoints was to test the soil pH of our undies burial sites. This was a follow on from the 2020 challenge where we also tested soil pH. We very carefully dropped some indicator dye onto a small sample of our soil, and added some white barium suphate powder to help the changing colours pop! Imogen took us through how soil pH can affect nutrient availability and how to improve our soil if the pH is too high or too low.

Our final checkpoint was to fill out our data collection sheet. This helpful sheet was designed to give us as much information as we could get about the soil each pair of undies was buried in. Oliver explained why collecting scientific data is so important, and guided us through how to make sure we all recorded good data on our experiments.

After all that it was time to dig up the undies, and dig them up you did! Even as we write this newsletter, more undies continue to be delivered back to us. We’re looking forward to seeing just how many come back. Last year, we sent out just over 200 pairs of undies, but only 81 came back to us. We’re hoping that from the 300 undies we sent out this year, we get a larger proportion returned to us. If you still have your undies, it’s not too late to send them back!

The winners of our participation prize was the Hamer Homeschool from southern Victoria. Those lucky ducks are now the proud owners of a UNE Discovery Telemetry Hub, and get a 1 on 1 virtual visit with UNE Discovery and Oliver Knox to learn just what we can discover from their soiled undies.

If you would like to see how your undies compare to others around Australia, check out the Cotton Info Soil Your Undies Map

The map will be gradually updated over the summer as the undies are photographed and uploaded, so be sure to check back in from time to time.

Finally, an enormous thank you and congratulations to everyone who participated in the Soil Your Undies Challenge this year. We are thrilled that so many of you took up the chance to not only help us learn about the soils of Australia, but also to make those discoveries yourselves. This has been a fantastic opportunity to get some hands on science into classrooms all around the country, which is especially valuable during a pandemic year when we could not visit classrooms in person as we normally would.