National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
What's Your pH?
9 - 12
In this lesson students will measure the pH of a soil sample and learn how pH affects the availability of nutrient uptake by plants. Students will determine if and how their soil pH should be modified through the application of soil amendments.
For the class:
- White vinegar (or 0.5 M solution of hydrochloric acid)
- Drain cleaner containing potassium hydroxide (or 0.5 M solution of sodium hydroxide)
- pH meters
- pH testing kit based on barium sulfate
- pH test strips (1-12 range) and litmus paper for quick acid/ base indicators
- Distilled water
- Internet access for research (this part may be done at home for homework)
For each group:
- Plastic 100 ml beaker
- 3 paper cups
- Spoon and stir stick
- Waterproof markers
For each student:
- What's Your pH? Lab worksheet
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
- Answers to Commonly Asked Questions (additional information)
- Answer Key-What's Your pH?
- What's Your pH? Lab worksheet
amendment: any material added to soil to make it more productive such as fertilizer or compost
compost: a mixture made of decaying organic material used to fertilize plants and amend soils
pH: power of hydrogen; a measure of the alkalinity or acidity of a substance
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Ask students if they know what an agronomist does. Introduce them to this career field by explaining that agronomists help farmers prepare and maintain their soil to achieve the maximum plant growth. They are an expert in the science and technology of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fiber, and land reclamation. They work in areas of plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, and soil science. Explain that agronomists help farmers achieve the maximum production from their land. They know the specific needs of plants and find methods of making soil as productive and fertile as possible.
- Watch the Agricultural Careers video clip, Agronomist.
- Inform your students they will:
- Explore soil pH
- Learn how soil pH affects plant nutrient availability
- Research how soil amendments may alter pH
- Use online resources to identify crops that grow best in slightly acidic or alkaline soils
- Before the lesson, prepare three soil samples. Samples should be close to 5.0, 6.5, 8.0 pH. This will require a little trial and error. Mix a little bit of soil with a lot of sand to make a soil mixture with little buffering capacity (the more clay and organic matter in soil, the higher the resistance to change in pH). The sandy texture of the soil will reduce the soil’s resistance to changing pH when you add acid or base forming materials.
- White vinegar may be used to lower the pH of the soil sample. (You may also use 0.5 M solution of hydrochloric acid if you need a stronger acid to change the pH or if you don’t want students to guess that the soil sample is acidic based on the vinegar odor.)
- A drain cleaner may be used to raise the pH of the soil sample. (You may also use 0.5 M solution of sodium hydroxide if you need a stronger base to change the pH.) Note: Traditional agricultural methods of adding lime to raise the pH and adding elemental sulfur to lower the pH takes months to alter pH, so we use drain cleaner and vinegar in this lab to instantly adjust our soil samples to our desired pH.
- Use an electronic pH meter to periodically measure the pH of the soil as acid and base are added until the desired level of acidity or alkalinity is reached. Label each soil sample 1, 2, and 3. The soil pH should be known by you, but not by your students.
- Tell students that in this lab they will act as agronomists, testing soil pH and advising farmers on methods for amending the soil for maximum crop productivity.
- Ask students if they know what pH is. Ask students if they can predict whether some common household items are acidic or alkaline. Do a demonstration to show students the pH levels of items such as lemon juice (pH 2.3), orange juice (pH 3.5), vinegar (pH 4.3), milk (pH 6.4), dish soap (pH 10), saliva (pH 6-8), or soda (pH 2-3).
- Ask students for ideas on why it would be important for farmers to know the pH of their soil. Use lesson background information to discuss the definition and importance of soil pH.
- Tell students that they will be testing soil samples that were sent in from three farms. Demonstrate to the students how to use each of the three pH testing methods.
- Use a pH testing kit based on barium sulfate in powdered form, where a small sample of soil is mixed with distilled water which then changes color according to the acidity or alkalinity.
- Use pH paper. A small sample of soil is mixed with distilled water into which a strip of pH paper is inserted. Show students how to compare results to the pH paper color chart.
- Use an electronic pH meter, in which a rod is inserted into moistened soil and measures the concentration of hydrogen ions.
- Instruct students to complete the information on their lab reports. When finished, discuss class results and have groups share their recommendations for each farmer based on the soil pH test.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation:
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Agronomy is the science of soil management and crop production.
- Agronomists as well as Soil Scientists use their knowledge of chemistry and pH to help farmers achieve maximum plant growth. This in turn helps provide a more plentiful food supply.
- Nutrients can be added, or amended in the soil.
- Instead of preparing soil samples of varying pH values, have students collect soil samples from their home, neighborhood, or community (while being respectful of private property). Test the pH of the soil samples and investigate explanations for differences in pH.
- In addition to testing the soil pH of the samples that the students collect, also test the soil texture. This is an important factor in the amount of lime or elemental sulfur needed to change the soil pH. Here’s a guide to soil texture by feel: soils.usda.gov/education/resources/lessons/texture
- Write down key terms so students can see them and connect them to the spoken word. If appropriate, connect a visual to each term introduced.
- As a class, create a flow chart to illustrate the procedure for the lab. Address questions that come up during the illustration process and prior to starting the lab.
We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!
Have students collect soil samples from your school garden. Test the pH of the soil samples and research the type of soil amendments that could be added to correct the pH level if needed. As a class, come up with a detailed plan to amend the soil pH, purchase and apply the soil amendment, and monitor the pH for any changes over the next couple of months. Soil samples should be cored from the first six inches of soil.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Everything is Chemical (Multimedia)
- Feeding the World and Protecting the Environment (Multimedia)
- Soil Science Videos (Multimedia)
- Soil Science Society of America (Website)
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Agriculture and the Environment
- Understand the natural cycles that govern the flow of nutrients as well as the way various nutrients (organic and inorganic) move through and affect farming and natural systems (T1.9-12.h)
Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy
- Compare similarities and differences between organic and inorganic nutrients (e.g., fertilizer) on plant growth and development; determine how their application affects plant and animal life (T2.9-12.b)
Education Content Standards
Plant Science Systems Career Pathway
PS.01.02Prepare and manage growing media for use in plant systems.
PS.01.03Develop and implement a fertilization plan for specific plants or crops.
HS-ESS2: Earth's Systems
HS-ESS2-1Develop a model to illustrate how Earth’s internal and surface processes operate at different spatial and temporal scales to form continental and ocean-floor features.
HS-ETS1: Engineering Design
HS-ETS1-2Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
HS-ETS1-3Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and tradeoffs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
Common Core Connections
Reading: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Writing: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.