Teaching soil science through art: Deb Kozlowski

If any soil scientist can be said to have a “typical” day, Deb Kozlowski isn’t one of them. She keeps horses, makes clay tile, and is keen on language and storytelling. She had a job once as a forester, worked for an engineering firm, and today teaches art in kindergarten through fifth grade. Her past interests have spanned beekeeping to broadcast radio to teaching 4H.

What has been constant, though, is her enthusiasm for soils. It’s a passion she shares with her grade schoolers through art and is helping bring to students everywhere as co-editor of a new introductory soils text, Know Soil, Know Life. Kozlowski now shares with Soil Horizons where this love originated and where it’s taken her.

Deb Kozlowski and one of her paintings

Soil Horizons: How did you first get interested in science?

Kozlowski: It goes back a long way. Even as a little kid growing up in the city I was always interested in the wilder places. I was born in Bridgeport, CT—not a place you usually associate with open space. But at the edge of my neighborhood, there was a huge munitions plant. It was all fenced in, and there were acres and acres of open space around it for security, I guess—I didn’t find any of this out until years later. And as a little kid, I found holes in the fence and was able to get in and just wander in the woods for hours on end. Never saw another living soul when I was in there (laughs). I guess the higher powers look out for little children and fools.

I’ve also always had an interest in art—I loved drawing and any kind of media from the time I was little. But when I was in high school, it was really my science teachers who encouraged me. So I decided to go that way. I became a forestry major.

Soil Horizons: And when did soils first capture your interest?

Kozlowski: My sophomore year in forestry, I was required to take an introductory soil science class. And at the time I thought, “I wish there was some way I could get out of this.” But it turned out that the instructor—Nobel K. Peterson at the University of New Hampshire—taught soils like no one else did at the time. He used three slide projectors, an overhead projector, and had a sound track running on a reel-to-reel tape recorder through every single class. And after you got used to it, you became addicted to it and saw what a fascinating topic this was. So I took the next soils class after that, and then at the end of that year, I went to work for him. I taught lab sections, helped with research—anything that needed to be done. I was behind the scenes in those multi-media presentations.

Soil Horizons: What happened next?

Kozlowski: After I graduated, I had a job as a forester for a while. But then my job ended, I moved back home with my folks, did this and that, and decided I needed to get back to school. And what did I want to go back to school for? I wanted to become a soil scientist. So I went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and got my master’s degree in soil morphology. And coincidentally there was another student there who had also worked for Dr. Peterson. He was three years behind me at the University of New Hampshire, but we met again at U Mass. I believe you know him, too: He grew up to be David Lindbo. He’s currently president of the Soil Science Society of America, which we joke makes me First Lady (laughs).

I finished my degree first and worked for an engineering company for a while. Then David finished and got a job at the National Sedimentation Laboratory down in Mississippi. Oxford, Mississippi—we used to call it the land of spouses with master’s degrees and no jobs. But it was okay because I had a young son at home and there are a lot of things I’m interested in. I became a 4H leader. I’ve also been very interested in horses, and that’s what we have on our farm now. We’re not producing row crops or anything—mostly manure, I guess (laughs). So I’ve had a vast and varied career. But I never gave up on soils.

Deb Kozlowski with a group of students

Soil Horizons: And now you’re an art teacher. How did that come about?

Kozlowski: When we moved here to North Carolina [for David’s next job], my sons attended a charter school, and about 10 years ago, there were more students than one art teacher could handle. I had done some projects with kids, so I said to the elementary school director, “You know, I think this is a job I can do.” And she said, “Well, why don’t we try you out.” So I just jumped in. I had to very quickly become acquainted with the North Carolina standards. It always cracks me up that people are incredulous that there’s a curriculum for art (laughs).

Soil Horizons: You said you never gave up on soils, though. How have you stayed connected to the field?

Kozlowski: I have always seen art as a vehicle toward understanding other things, and there are so many things you can share about science through art—soils, specifically. For example, we take little glass vials and make tiny soil monoliths in them. And it turns out you can talk about color changes, contrast, rhythm, patterns, movement—all those things are part of the language of art that you can express through soil. Of course, the big one is clay. It doesn’t matter what you do with clay—kids are happy to work with it. But a lot of them also don’t know where it comes from. So, we’ve gone out and dug clay from the fields. We also set up experiments to take it from one stage to another: from air-dried, to fired in the kiln, to glazed. Or the other direction: If it’s air-dried, how do you wet it up again and make it workable? Can you combine this clay with that clay? What happens if you let clay sit in water so long that it goes anaerobic? I could go on and on. We could have art all day.

Soil Horizons: Why is it important for kids of that age to learn about soils?

Kozlowski: I think we’ve realized that if we’re going to get kids to recycle or wear a helmet when they ride a horse, we have to teach them about it when they’re young. It has to become something they just accept, like wearing clothes. It’s the same with soil. People have heard about the different layers to the earth—the mantle and the core—or the different layers of the atmosphere. But they have no idea there are different layers in the soil or that soils differ from one place to another. But if they’re introduced to the idea when they’re little, it doesn’t seem like such a radical thing because they’ve grown up knowing about it.

I also think one of the hardest things about being a soil scientist is nobody knows what you do. People either laugh and say, “Hold on a second. I’ve got something on the bottom of my shoe. Let me show you.” Or they ask, “Well, are you like a geophysicist?” And you say, “Nooo, I’m a soil scientist.” They have no idea what’s going on under the surface of the earth. Or that it’s a bona-fide field of science you can make a living at.

Cover of the book Know Soil, Know Life

Soil Horizons: These are some of the attitudes that Know Soil, Know Life aims to address. Did you get involved in the book through David?

Kozlowski: Yes. We said, “We have to get these kids when they’re little and show them how cool soil is.” Just like Dr. Peterson got us when we were in college and showed us how cool it is.

Soil Horizons: And what was your role?

Kozlowski: Being a product of parochial school, I had grammar drilled into my head from a very early age, and as an artist, I like language and storytelling. So, David would bring home the ideas he wanted to convey and usually did a rough draft, and then I would sit with it. And having experience now for the past 10 years as a teacher, I could put it into the language of the target audience that we wanted to reach. It was like taking the information out of “code” and putting it into regular English.

Soil Horizons: So, basically, you’re a Renaissance woman?

Kozlowski: Well, that’s a nice thing to say. My fifth graders study the Renaissance, and we talk about Leonardo Da Vinci: that he was both an artist and a scientist. It still kind of bugs me that people think it’s weird—that you could love art and love science.

I’m saying not I’m Leonardo Da Vinci. But you only have one life, and when opportunities present themselves.... I mean, when we moved to Oxford, MS, I could have beat my heels and maybe driven an hour to Memphis to work for another engineering company. But I thought, “No, it’s time to put that aside for now” and focus on kids. And I could do horse stuff at that time. Then we moved to North Carolina, and I could do some other stuff. And all the time, art was kind of on a slow boil—a back burner. On the whole, it’s been a nice blend of things to have in my life. So, take advantage of every opportunity.

This "Day in the Life" profile appears in the March-April 2013 issue of Soil Horizons.

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