Hands-on Activity: Cutting Through Soil
Educational Standards :
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
To share with the entire class:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
Who can tell me who Thomas Jefferson was? Almost everyone who lives in the U.S. knows a little bit about Thomas Jefferson. He was one of the founding fathers of our country. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, which declared the United States of America's freedom from Great Britain. He also served as President of the U.S. and made one of the greatest land purchases in history by acquiring the "Louisiana Territory" from the French. What many people do not know about Thomas Jefferson is that he was also an inventor. His inventions include a coding/decoding mechanism, a folding ladder and a macaroni noodle extruder. One other invention of his that we will discuss in greater depth today is his improvement to the wooden plow that greatly increased its effectiveness for agricultural purposes.
Plows have been used in farming for a very long time. Paintings left by ancient Egyptians show farmers using oxen to pull ancient wooden plows. The basic function of a plow is to cut deep into the soil and turn over a strip of sod (or furrow) so that a seed can be planted in the loose, aerated (exposed to oxygen) soil. For a very long time, plows were made almost entirely of wood with only the tip of the share (cutting edge) coated with iron. During the United States' early Colonial period and even after the Revolutionary War, most plows were still made from wood, even though a cast iron plow was available. Thomas Jefferson improved the design of the wooden plow by using mathematical calculations to figure out the best shape for the moldboard, the part of the plow that turns over the soil.
Many improvements have been made to the plow since Thomas Jefferson's day. One other person who made improvements to the plow with whom you might be familiar is an inventor in the early 1800s named John Deere. The company he started, John Deere, Inc., still manufactures and sells farm machinery, including plows. Have you seen John Deere's bright green logo on tractors you might see in fields near your home or while driving through farming communities?
Modern-day plows are monstrous pieces of steel machinery that are pulled behind huge tractors. Improvements to the plow continue to be made. These improvements involve the work of agricultural engineers who analyze different aspects of the plow's mechanism as it slices into the soil and turns over the ground. With their analysis, they are able to make changes to the design of plows and improve their ability to work the soil. Agricultural engineers also work on other aspects of farm machinery, including the development of new machines that fit the needs of new farming practices, such as no-till farming.
Today, we are going to pretend to be agricultural engineers during the colonial period and design a miniature wooden plow to cut into a "field" of sandy soil. First, we need to cover the basic parts of a plow so you have a better understanding of how plows work. (Use the Parts of a Plow Handout as an overhead slide or handout.)
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Procedure (Return to Contents)
Farmers have been plowing the soil for thousands of years. The first farm implements are thought to have been sharp sticks used to poke holes into the ground for seeds. The first plows were probably adaptations of these sticks, which enabled them to be attached to donkeys or oxen in order to produce long furrows for planting. Eventually, these sticks were tipped with iron and the design of the apparatus improved. At some point, the design changed to include a coulter (a rolling disk/knife that slices the soil vertically in advance of the share), a plowshare (which slices the soil horizontally), and a moldboard (which turns the cut soil upside down). Wheels were optional, depending on the weight of the soil being worked. While iron was used for various parts of the plow by the Egyptians, Romans and Israelites, among other cultures, the first completely iron plow was developed sometime in the 1700s. It took some time, however, before farmers began to adopt the new plow (see Figure 2), due to their superstitions that the iron poisoned the soil. John Deere is credited with adapting the iron plow for use on the American plains. The plow has evolved dramatically since this time period, along with the advancement of accompanying farming techniques. Some modern farmers are now turning to a new type of farming, which uses minimal-to-no tilling, requiring newer, specialized equipment and virtually eliminating the need for a plow. This technique is not suitable for all types of farming, however; for instance, corn requires at least small strips of tilled or plowed ground for proper planting and to optimize growth.
The initial purpose of the plow was to provide a loose strip of soil in which to plant seeds. Eventually the plow evolved into a tool that cut out a slice of earth, turned it over and then crumbled it. Not only does this action loosen up the soil for planting, it serves a variety of other purposes as well. Plowing enhances the organic content of the soil by turning over crop residue, weeds and manure; controls weeds; aids in the regulation of soil temperature, ventilation and moisture; and is thought to make nutrients more available to plants. In recent years, proponents of the no-till method of farming have challenged some of the purported benefits of the method of farming that relies heavily on tilling the soil (including plowing).
Before the Activity
With the Students
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Troubleshooting Tips (Return to Contents)
The spring scale will vary in measurement some during the course of the test, but should reach equilibrium when the plow is being pulled at a steady rate through the soil. Use this equilibrium value as the final measurement. Make sure to use a spring scale that measures very small forces (in grams). For example, a spring scale designed to weigh fish, which measures weight in pounds, will not work for this activity.
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Worksheet: Have students complete the worksheet included with the Name the Parts of a Plow Worksheet in their groups. When all teams are finished, engage the class in a discussion about the importance and function of each component. (Possible answers include: The handles are used to steer the plow, the coulter cuts the ground ahead of the share to prepare the ground, etc.). Discuss what would happen if each piece were not included on the plow. (Possible answers include: Without the coulter, the share would have to cut the soil horizontally and vertically, which would put a lot more stress on it and possibly overload it; or with no hitch, there would be no way to pull the plow through the soil, etc.)
Activity Embedded Assessment
Class Discussion: As a class, list all the steps in the engineering design process. (If students are not familiar with the steps, see the following websites for a classroom handout or overhead slide on the engineering design process: http://www.teachengineering.org/view_activity.php?url=http://www.teachengineering.org/collection/cub_/activities/cub_viking_ship/cub_viking_ship_lesson01.xml.)
Discuss how you will follow or have followed each step in the design process during the course of the activity. (Possible answers include: This step, Ask, involves looking at the wooden plows that have been produced in the past; this step, Imagine, involves brainstorming ideas about what you can build with the available resources; etc.)
Brainstorm: Have students brainstorm other methods of measuring the success of the plows aside from the depth of the furrow and the force required. (Possible answers include: Durability, ease of use [hitch or handle design], reproducibility, strength, cost, etc.)
Voting/Discussion: Have students vote on the best plow design based on the criteria discussed in the activity and the measurements they brainstormed. Discuss as a class how these design constraints might be the same as those imposed on engineers in the design of improved plows. It might also be beneficial to discuss how the test "field" is different than a real field (for example, the test field ihas no plant debris or roots, the test field is a uniform sandy soil, etc.).
Engineering Impacts: Conclude with a discussion on how the development of a new plow would impact the agricultural industry. (Possible answers: Increased efficiency, more crops can be planted, etc.)
Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)
Provide several different fields with various types of soil (clay, rocky, sand, sandy loam, etc.) to observe how the force required to pull the plow and the depth of the furrow changes based on the type of soil in the field.
Activity Scaling (Return to Contents)
References (Return to Contents)
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC, accessed July 9, 2009. http://www.dictionary.com
Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Remedial Section, "Site Remediation Unit," © 1996-2009, accessed July 9, 2009. http://www.kdheks.gov/remedial/scu/landapp/tractor_plowing_lg.jpg
lovetoknow, Classic Encyclopedia, from the 11th ed. of Encyclopedia Britannica, "Plough and Plowing," December 7, 2008, accessed July 9, 2009. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Plough_And_Ploughing
Northern Indiana Center for History, 2008, accessed July 9, 2009. http://centerforhistory.org/
Rymer, Eric. Historylink101.com, The Story of Farming, "The Plow," January 2004, accessed July 9, 2009. http://historylink101.com/lessons/farm-city/plow.htm
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Big South Fork, "News," July 24, 2006, accessed July 9, 2009. http://www.nps.gov/biso/parknews/images/spring-planting-06.jpg
ContributorsJacob Crosby, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell
Copyright© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder
Last Modified: April 23, 2014