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Teaching prize awarded to soil science professor Randy Dahlgren

April 5, 2012

Teaching prize winner a class act

Video (7 min 36 sec)

Videography by Ken Zukin and Kristen Simoes

Man standing in a redwood grove

Randy Dahlgren, professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, is the 2012 teaching prize winner.

The phrase “dull as dirt” does not apply to professor Randy Dahlgren’s soil science classes. Time and again on his student evaluations, the words “enthusiasm,” “passion” and “energy” pop up. In the classroom, his movements are bold, his voice animated, his excitement contagious.

His distinctive teaching abilities were recognized today, April 5, when UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi interrupted his “Crisis in the Environment?” class with a cake to announce that he is the recipient of the 2012 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Established in 1986, the prize was created to honor faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. The $40,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation. The winner is selected based on the nominations of other professors, research peers, representatives from the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees, and students. An event to celebrate the award will be held May 3.

Dahlgren’s energy comes across in his lectures, where, drawing from his vast research experience, he manages to take a subject commonly viewed as uninteresting and makes it relevant to students’ lives. Moving beyond silt and loam, Dahlgren helps non-science students discover the role that soil plays in the environment — from affecting climate change to rangeland management to creating good fish habitat.

“Excellence in teaching does not get rewarded like excellence in research does,” said Dahlgren. “We need to give this kind of reward to so many more people. There are teachers here who are much better than I am, so I’m a little embarrassed, but honored, too.”

"Randy’s ability to engage students while challenging them underscores his commitment to student success,” Katehi said. “He has inspired many of them to pursue careers in environmental science, while also maintaining his own active research and administrative load. It is an honor to award Randy the 2012 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.”

In addition to being an active soil science and biogeochemistry teacher, Dahlgren is chair of the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and director of the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science. He also holds the Russell L. Rustici Endowed Chair in Rangeland Watershed Sciences, is a fellow of the Soil Science Society of America and received the 2008 UC Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award.

“It is not possible to overstate Professor Dahlgren’s ability as a teacher,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in his nomination letter. “To state that he is an exemplary and inspirational teacher who motivates students does not fully do justice to his skills and passion for teaching.”

"This prize, generously funded by donors, recognizes that student success begins with the strong commitment and expertise of the faculty," said Kevin Bacon '72, chair of the UC Davis Foundation. "The trustees are very pleased to award the prize to Professor Dahlgren, who is an excellent example of the first-rate teaching under way at UC Davis."

From tractor to volcanoes

Dahlgren grew up on his family’s grain farm in Kennedy, Minn., a town of 400 people at the time. He remembers driving the tractor with his father when he was 7 years old, “working the soil.” He recalls long summers of sitting on that tractor for $1.25 an hour, and cold winters of skating across miles of ice covering the creek that ran behind the farm. The town was 60 miles from the nearest movie theater. Being outdoors was simply the way of life.

“Having grown up there, we had to be totally self-sufficient,” says Dahlgren. “If things broke, we had to use duct tape and bailing wire to fix it. It cultivated common sense and critical thinking.”

Back then, he was not thinking about how chemistry worked all around him. That came later, when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying ash from the recently erupted Mount St. Helens.

“Suddenly, I was away from the mundane textbook stuff to actual scientific discovery,” he said. “That feeling was pretty fantastic.”

Most of his graduate research took place east of Mount St. Helens at Findley Lake, which had not received ash from the volcano. His research team helicoptered in volcanic ash to create plots and study the effect ash had on the soil. They found that periodic volcanic eruptions engender productive soils and aquatic environments.

“Most people focus on the devastation of volcanoes,” said Dahlgren. “I focus on the rejuvenation.”

After his experience with Mount St. Helens, Dahlgren became somewhat of a volcano chaser, traveling to Japan, New Zealand, Iceland and the Canary Islands to research active volcanoes there.

His research has also helped explain the relevance of nitrogen in rock, which had rarely been considered before his work. Nitrogen in rock converts to nitric acid, which can acidify soils and contribute to nitrates in groundwater and surface water.

“It’s a natural source that’s been neglected,” he said. “Nitrogen out of rock is like a slow-release fertilizer.”

His current research with colleagues at Mount Shasta connects the threads of his work — soil and water chemistry and unexpected sources of nutrients. Groundwater from glaciers melting at the top of Mount Shasta takes about 30 years to trickle down the mountain to the valley, where it emerges as spring water. Along the way, it picks up nitrogen and phosphorous.

“Here is a natural source of nutrients, and the fish love this,” he said.

The nutrients feed aquatic vegetation along the Shasta River, which feeds bugs, which in turn feed the fish. This historically made the Shasta River one of the most productive rivers for salmon, Dahlgren explained. In Dahlgren’s work, it is yet another example of volcanoes not as destroyers, but life-givers.

Class act

Dahlgren takes his experiences from the field and incorporates them into his classroom lessons.

Since he first came to UC Davis in 1989, his main teaching assignments have been “Concepts in Soil Science,” “Field Study of Soils in California Ecosystems,” and “Ecosystem Biogeochemistry.” He is also one of three professors teaching “Trees and Forests.”

In 2004, he created the class “Crisis in the Environment? ”— with a very deliberate question mark — which is now one of the most popular classes in the Science and Society Program. Examples from the day’s news headlines help the class relate what they are learning to real life.

Recognizing that everyone learns differently, Dahlgren uses lectures, slides, YouTube videos, writings and discussions to reach all types of learners.

While helping students connect soil science with their own lives is rewarding to Dahlgren, he also gets something unexpected out of teaching: “Relaxation. Does that sound funny?” he said. “In the administrative part of my life, I’m multitasking all day long — I’m checking emails, answering phones, having people come in and out of my office. When it’s time for class, I go in there, and I’m focused on one thing. It’s actually relaxing. And that feedback from the students, I can feel that energy. … I’m in there, and the only thing on my mind is to share my understanding of how the world works with this next generation of students.”

Sharing that knowledge has helped change the course of some of his students’ lives.

Former student Rebecca Sutton is currently a senior scientist in Oakland, Calif., with Environmental Working Group, a public health and environmental nonprofit. “While I originally came to UC Davis with the intention to study environmental science, I had no interest in dirt,” she wrote in a nomination letter. “I expected Randy’s introductory soil science class to be a dull but necessary requirement that I might as well complete during my first quarter of college, in 1994. Within a few weeks, my attitude had changed dramatically.”

Sutton went on to earn a Ph.D. in soil chemistry at UC Berkeley. “Exposure to Randy’s dynamic vision of the world of soil was a formative experience for me — an experience that placed me on my path to professional success,” she continued. “His impact on my life is a true measure of the excellence of his teaching.”

If Dahlgren is a lively teacher, it is partly attributable to two energetic teachers from his life: Jim Richardson, his mentor as an undergraduate at North Dakota State University, and Fiorenzo Ugolini, his graduate major professor at the University of Washington and someone Dahlgren calls his “academic father.”

“From them, I’ve learned that a fairly high-energy presentation and a little humor keeps the students engaged,” said Dahlgren. “Engaging students is a critical aspect of the learning experience.”

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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