Every year at the Bayer Young Environmental Envoy conference in Leverkusen, a visit to a mobile laboratory and classroom powered by a photovoltaic roof is a highlight for the young environmentalists. Housed in a 7.5-tonne bus, the lab is named Lumbricus, meaning earthworm, and it demonstrates Ottmar Hartwig’s enthusiasm for nature and environmental education – and a particular passion for soil. The TUNZA team thought our soil issue would be incomplete without talking to Ottmar about what he does, and why he thinks that educating young people about soil is a matter of urgency.
How did I come to spend my days on an ecobus? Maybe it was all the gardening I did with my father in the 1960s, or the wildlife shows of the era – from Jacques Cousteau to Bernhard Grzimek to David Attenborough. And my love of nature prompted me to study biology and geography at Cologne University.
‘But as far as I’m concerned, you can’t learn without getting your hands dirty. One thing I always say is: “If you want to learn to swim, you have to go into the water. If you want to learn about ecology, you have to go into nature – at least once!” In my years of teaching, I’ve observed that young people are increasingly losing direct experience of nature – not just plant growth or insect metamorphosis, but even bad weather! So for many of our students, collecting invertebrates in steep forest soil or digging to discover different soil layers in a muddy riverbank, under a lot of weeds, is a new experience.
‘Which brings me to soil. The local and global importance of natural soils is a favourite theme of mine, and, according to the International Union of Soil Sciences and the German Soil Science Society, a subject that’s too often ignored in the classroom. Yet soil, along with water, is fundamental for life on the planet, and is connected to agriculture, afforestation, water production, water storage and filtration and biodiversity. Under natural circumstances it takes 10 years to produce 1 millimetre of soil, and it takes a minute to destroy it: we are losing fertile soil at an alarming rate, and I fear the loss of productive soil worldwide will give rise to major social and political problems.
‘But when young people come to Lumbricus, soil is not always a favourite subject: they think it’s just dirt! We teach them that soil is actually an ecosystem with a bundle of important processes and many helpers. The methods we use to get children close to soil differ according to age group and interest. For the little ones, we offer a microscopic look at the soil inhabitants. Older pupils drill into soil to obtain a “soil-sausage”, so that they can observe different soil layers. More mature students might analyse a soil sample’s pH to determine acidity. In the end, every team presents its results and documents it digitally for further use back in the classroom.
‘These lessons give only a glimpse of soil science to children, but it’s a subject well worth teaching. In our humble ecobus – named after the worms who do such an important undercover job for the world – we have reached more than 70,000 young people, and plan to keep going. We know we’re making an impact: we’ve seen some of the documented results of Lumbricus outings persist in school classrooms for years. But best of all is when pupils from years past return as adults, now young teachers themselves, bringing their own pupils to learn about nature by digging in.’