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Soil and the Global Environment
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APBI 100
Section: 98A and 99A (Distance Education)
Instructor: Sandra Brown
Office Hours:
Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

Course Description

Soil comprises the base of the ecosystem pyramid, which sustains terrestrial life on the planet and provides the essential media for the production of food, fibre, and biofuel. The survival of past and future civilizations is linked to sustaining the soil resource, yet global soil resources are under threat from many factors including climate change, pollution, erosion, desertification, urbanization, etc. This course examines the links between soil and the environmental challenges of our times. We discover the Earth’s living skin, where rock meets life and is transformed into soil. We examine the complex interaction between soil and the carbon cycle, processes of soil erosion and conservation strategies, and the interdependence of soil and water resources. Additionally, we discuss questions regarding appropriate land use and plant production that might affect food security and safety.

This course has no pre-requisite and emphasizes active learning and critical thinking. In this class we will gather information from a wide range of media including websites. Students will learn to assess source credibility and accuracy, and develop informed opinions. By focusing on current issues and success stories from around the world this course helps prepare global citizens to engage with policy debate on environmental issues. The more we understand the world we live in, the better equipped we are to change it.

Target Audience

This course is intended primarily for students with a limited science background, who wish to improve their science literacy and understanding of current global environmental issues to achieve active citizenship. It is open to all students with a general interest in soil and current environmental issues. The course may serve as an elective for students in the Faculties of Land and Food Systems, Forestry, Science, Arts, visiting students or professionals seeking continuing education who are interested in exploring the linkage between soil science, environment and society. This course provides an overview of core principles in soil and environmental sciences, and challenges students to integrate knowledge to understand key environmental issues.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of APBI 100 students will be able to:

  • Understand basic soil science principles and improve their level of scientific literacy
  • Critically assess accuracy, credibility, and objectivity of various information sources ranging from scientific literature to the web-based articles
  • Discuss the complex interplay of soils and climate change
  • Recognize the interconnection between soil and water resources
  • Describe processes responsible for soil degradation, strategies appropriate for soil conservation and the importance of appropriate land use planning
  • Evaluate the roles of soil for plant growth as underlined in food security, food safety, and biofuel production issues
  • Analyze current events related to soil and the environment and engage in constructive debate on the sustainability of the global soil resources
  • Express informed and scientifically sound opinion on global environmental issues

Course structure

APBI 100 is a 3-credit distance education course delivered using the Connect course management system. The course is structured around six 2-week units. The last week of classes is used for concluding remarks.

At the beginning of each unit the instructor provides an overview of the unit’s topic and specific learning outcomes, and directs students to required study material (e.g., scientific papers, web resources, podcasts, documentaries, webinars). The instructor posts questions and facilitates on-line class discussion with the objectives of (1) prompting students to research further information pertaining to the topic; (2) ensuring that all students have a sound understanding of the issue, and (3) challenging students to apply their understanding to topics of current interest.

In addition to completing readings, on-line research and participating in discussions, students keep a journal of current events relevant to soils and the global environment, explore the soil in their local region, and investigate innovative options to tackle the current challenges of soil in the environment.

Finally, students complete self-study quizzes to assess their progress and performance in the course.

Course Schedule

See Course:APBI100/Schedule


Assessment will be based on written work and student participation, as follows:

1. Online discussion board (15%) Students participate in bi-weekly asynchronous discussions on topics of high environmental and societal relevance. Instructor defines topics and leads the discussion by listing a series of key questions. The discussion is collaborative, with each student building on / adding perspective to previous posts. Grading is based on participation, relevance and accuracy of posts.

2. Midterm exams (20%)

3. Assignments (25%)

Current events journal: Students will analyze news topics related to specific core course modules. Sources for news events include newspapers, online news services, news magazine features, TV newscast / documentaries, radio, etc. Students briefly summarize the issue, give background and context, and critically review the news provider position and its treatment of the issue (depth, accuracy, objectivity).

The soil beneath your feet: Working alone or in small groups, students will undertake a self-guided field exercise, digging a soil profile, recording their observations and synthesizing the results of their field work in a short written report. Standard field sampling protocols for soil science are used for this exercise.

Challenges, alternatives and innovations: Students are asked to either: identify a local soil issue and discuss potential alternatives OR identify an innovative practice that is being used locally (i.e. near where they currently live, their hometown, or where they are studying). Students will describe their issue or option, include photographs, and post their information to a URL restricted Google map (access available to registered students only).

4. Final exam (40%) The grading system is numeric. All reports should be handed in on time and 10% mark subtraction per day may applied to late submissions.

Bibliography and library resources

Required Textbook

The required textbook for the course is: Hillel, D. 2007. Soil in the environment. Academic Press, ISBN 978-0-12-348536-6

Background Readings

Background readings are drawn from a variety of sources such as those listed below.

Diamond, J. 2004. Chapter 8: Norse Greenland’s end. In Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking publishing. Doyle, A. May 22, 2009. New worries on Arctic permafrost thaw. Reuters. Available at Retrieved Mar 2014.

Gladwell, M. January 3, 2005. The vanishing. The New Yorker book review. Available at Retrieved Mar 2014.

Krzic M., P. Sanborn, K. Watson, A.A. Bomke, C. Crowley, and S. Dyanatkar. 2008. Virtual soil processes. The University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Available at

Krzic, M., K. Wiseman, D. Gaumont-Guay, and L. Dampier. 2004. SoilWeb: on line teaching tool for Introduction to soil science course. The University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Available at

Montgomery, D. 2007. Good old dirt. In Dirt: The erosion of civilizations. Pp. 1-8 University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. Available at

Montgomery, D. 2007. Skin of the Earth. In Dirt: The erosion of civilizations. Pp. 9-26 University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. Available at

Warkentin, B. 2006 (Editor). Section IV: Soil utilization and conservation. In Footprints in the soil: people and ideas in soil history. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Academic Honesty

Academic honesty is a core value of scholarship. Cheating and plagiarism (including both presenting the work of others as your own and self-plagiarism), are serious academic offences that are taken very seriously in Land & Food Systems. By registering for courses at UBC, students have initiated a contract with the university that they will abide by the rules of the institution. It is the student’s responsibility to inform themselves of the University regulations. Definitions of Academic Misconduct can be found on the following website:,54,111,959#10894 If you are unsure of whether you’re properly citing references, please ask your instructor for clarification before the assignment is submitted. Improper citation will result in academic discipline.