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Dirt Queen’s video raises awareness — and test scores

Professor shares ‘secrets in the soil’ with schoolkids

SHARE Dirt Queen’s video raises awareness — and test scores

Not many would consider being nicknamed the "Dirt Queen" a compliment.

But Debra Spielmaker, an assistant professor with Utah State University Extension and director of Utah's Agriculture in the Classroom program, is proud to own up to it.

And when she discovered Utah's fourth-grade students were averaging 62 percent on the soils section of the Utah State Standardized Science Test in 1998, it was her love for all things agricultural that propelled her to want to do something about it.

"(Students) had never heard it talked about in any revered sort of light," Spielmaker said. "They'd never made the connection between dirt and their food, their clothing and their homes. When they heard 'Your clothes are dirty' or 'You've got dirt on your shoes,' it was viewed as being mundane."

So what to do with students who don't know dirt about dirt? Show them the connection between dirt and their everyday lives, Spielmaker said. And those are numerous, stretching even as far as computers (with plastics derived from fossil fuels) and electricity (if a coal fire is used).

The former middle school teacher decided the best way to tackle the problem of raising test scores was making a video for teachers to use in the classroom — "Dirt: Secrets in the Soil."

With the help of Ron Nichols of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, KUTV-TV and several grants from organizations including the Grantsville Soil Conservation District, the six-segment, 60-minute program was made. Over the course of five months and filming locales that spanned areas like Cache Valley, St. George and Tooele, the video was completed and distributed across the state. What Spielmaker originally imagined would be 35 minutes long ended up coming in at 62, with Channel 2 providing clips taken from just under 300 tapes of their own material.

Within less than two years after it was implemented, Utah student test scores improved an average of 20 percent.

And Utah isn't the only place elementary students are benefitting from it. Just last week, "Dirt" was broadcast on closed-circuit TV throughout Kentucky as part of their soils unit. It's also been sold to teachers in Maine, Alaska and Texas.

Not only have test scores improved drastically, but students are now interested in something as "mundane" as dirt, effectively learning the difference between sand, silt, clay and loam and the effects of erosion.

"Which is great because it's something that's not very sexy, yet every living thing is dependent upon soil," Nichols said. "And, based on the test scores, I think it's clear that (students) are now soil savvy."

"(The program) is really, really good. It's something most of the teachers and students know nothing about," said Constance Huntsman of South Jordan's Welby Elementary, who has used it for the past two years. "It used to be we'd tell them 'dirt' and they'd get this deer in the headlights look."

It's even made Spielmaker, who appears in some of the video's segments, into a celebrity of sorts.

"Kids come up to me and say, 'You're that lady that does that chemistry and water and dirt stuff,' " Spielmaker said. "I've had that happen to me about three times."

The video will probably be used for another five years or so, Spielmaker estimates, until it's "not cool anymore" and she stops getting recognized.

Until then, autographs signed in mud seem only a stone's throw away.

E-mail: dmoody@desnews.com