N.E.H. Institute-Based Curriculum

Julia C. Polak
St. Joseph Catholic School
428 East Ave.
York, Nebraska 68467

“People, Prairies, Plains”--three words that kept creeping, almost insidiously, into my teaching this past year. The National Endowment for the Humanities Institute at Kansas State University during July of 1995 has changed my perspective on the teaching of science.

The most obvious influence that resulted from my participation in the Institute was my increased awareness of the necessity for students to realize their sense of “place.” I tried during the year, whenever possible, to reinforce the students’ awareness of why Nebraska is the way it is --its wildlife, grasslands, croplands, water resources, soil resources, even weather. The uniqueness of York’s location in south central Nebraska, Nebraska’s location in the center of the United States, and indeed, in the center of North America, in retrospect, seemed to permeate my classroom science discussions. Such topics have always been a part of my teaching, but never before have I been so aware of the connections among what the students need to know, why they need to know it, and what it has to do with their development of their sense of “place.”

The series of lessons dealing with the importance of soil and its effect on Great Plains history in my sixth-grade ecology class was probably the most successful. Following our study of soil formation, composition, horizons, and ecosystems, we went on to soil erosion--a drop erosion activity was followed by an adaptation of Tom Fancher’s particle sorting effects activity. We viewed the videotape “The Plow that Broke the Plains” and discussed soil conservation since the 1930s Dust Bowl days, including some of Doug Hurt’s information on the shelterbelt projects begun in Nebraska. Using selections and pictures from Worster’s and Hurt’s books on the Dust Bowl, my students became much more aware of how important soil is to the farmer, to the economy of the Great Plains in general, and to York, Nebraska, in particular.

As a culminating assessment, the sixth graders were assigned groups and chose from a variety of topics, and made presentations to the rest of the class. These presentations included a play about the land-rush and the Oklahoma “Sooners,” a video about a family’s life during the Dust Bowl, and traditional offerings using creative props representing John Deere and his steel plow, and a modern farmer planting fence-row to fence-row through native brome grasses. Some of the students researched Native Americans of the plains and their food sources and prepared some of the dishes for sampling.

I was very pleased that this “unit” had been selected by Dan Flores for inclusion in the OAH Magazine of History, Spring 1996 issue. If its success with my students is any indication of how successful it will be in other classrooms, with other students, the relationship between soil and history will be well on its way to finding a permanent place in the curriculum.

“People, Prairies, Plains--those insidious three words have etched themselves deeply in my teaching philosophy. Using a “new” perspective in all my science and language arts classes has become inevitable, yes, even inescapable.

How People Have Used Soils
How Soils Have Affected U.S. History

Julia Polak Introduction: This lesson investigates the social aspects of the land and the soils and how we use these resources. Students learn how Native Americans in their region used the soils years ago. Students contrast this use with our present use. Students research how soils have influenced the history of the United States.

Connection to the Curriculum: Grades 5-12 Earth Science, Ecology, American History, Sociology.

Time: The time required is two class periods 45-55 minutes each or as long as a week or two.

Materials and Equipment: Handout sheets and reference materials.


How People Have Used Soils

  1. Students will discover the relationship of early Native Americans to the environment, the land, and the soils.
  2. Students will describe ways that modern technology can alter the land and the soils in both beneficial and detrimental ways.
  3. Students will state why we should carefully examine our land-use decisions before we act on them.
How Soils Have Affected U.S. History

  1. Students will conduct research to list the reasons Americans continually moved west during the colonial period and the first one-hundred years of our nation’s history.
  2. Students will evaluate the critical role that land in general and soils in particular had in this westward migration.
  3. Students will contrast this historical perspective with our current dependence upon the soils.


How People Have Used Soils--Part I

  1. Introduce the soils unit with information on soil formation, soil horizons, and different soil types.
  2. Have students read the first part of the activity sheet, then ask them to brainstorm sources of information to answer the questions. List their answers on the board. Possible sources include: Native Americans still living in the area, school and public libraries, state and local historical societies, museums of natural history, anthropology departments of local colleges, local conservation district or the Soil Conservation Service office.
  3. You should divide the class into small groups and have each group answer the five questions using a different source of information. Help students determine the best method of gathering the information from outside sources.
  4. Compare each group’s answers.

How People Have Used Soils--Part II

These answers will be based upon opinions since the terms helpful and harmful are relative and vary in meaning from one person to another. Furthermore, there is no correct answer to question 3. It should stimulate your students to think critically about how we use the land and apply technology. See handout #1.

How Soils Have Affected U.S. History

  1. Several days before the activity, contact your school librarian to obtain reference material on the topics. This will help students get started.
  2. Since students will be working in small groups on a report, a key to this activity is organization. You may want to present this action plan to your students to help them organize.
  3. Divide the class into small groups and discuss the interrelationships that exist among the land, soils, water, plants, animals, and minerals. Then ask your students to read the activity sheet, have them select or assign a topic to each group, and have them get started. Let your students know whether the end result should be an oral or written report, or a more creative expression such as a skit, play, or newscast. Also set a deadline for the presentation. See handout #2.

Teacher’s Information: How People Have Used Soils: People have always used the plant and animal resources of the land to supply themselves with food and shelter. This is just as true today as it was when the land now designated the United States was inhabited by American Indians.

The Indian cultures were diverse, and their effects on local environments varied, in part because hunting technology and farming technology affect nature differently. In general, their cultures evolved to fit the environment. For instance, in areas of favorable climate and soils, local tribes established a stable agrarian culture with organized villages. Some tribes even irrigated their fields. In harsher locations, for example Alaska and the Great Plains, a nomadic lifestyle usually developed. Individual tribes followed the primary food sources of seal and whale in Alaska and bison on the Plains. Agriculture in both areas was difficult. These nomadic cultures affected the land with fire and in other ways, but they lacked the technology to make larger alterations in the environment.

In contrast, modern technology can alter the land and the soil in both beneficial and detrimental ways on a massive scale. For example, large-scale, intensive monoculture of grain crops and extensive urbanization can be detrimental. These practices increase the erosion potential and can deplete the soil, or remove larger acreages from farming. Conservationists have learned much about soil erosion and flood control and have made advances in reducing these problems. However, for various reasons, erosion is still a severe problem.

With our tremendous technological ability to alter land and soil comes a responsibility. This responsibility must be seriously considered to balance the benefits of technology with its possible detriments. See handout #3.

Teacher’s Information: How Soils Affected U.S. History: The environment is the surface of the earth and all its natural resources: the plants, the animals, the underlying minerals, and most important, the soils. Plants grow in soil and ultimately animals depend upon the nourishment of these plants. Thus, the plants, animals, and minerals are products of the soil: a more basic resource than any of the others.

The land and the soil have had a dramatic effect upon United States history. In the 1500s and the 1600s the New World was viewed as a utopia, a land of abundance. This was due primarily to reports of rich, fertile soils and vast amounts of timber, fur pelts, and other resources that could be obtained from the land and the soil. This perception of abundance continued throughout our very early period of settlement and expansion when many nations claimed large tracts of American land. The perception of abundance and plenty lasted through the Revolutionary War period and culminated in the nineteenth century.

Many, including our government officials, believed it was our nation’s right and duty to expand and to reap the benefits of the land and the rich soils of the West. The expansion was judged essential to meet the needs of a young, growing nation. Pioneers moved west seeking flat, fertile land at little or no cost.

Although the trip was rough and the life on the Plains difficult, land rushes, the Homestead Act, and several inventions urged settlers ever westward. The key inventions during this period were the steel plow, barbed wire, and the windmill. Barbed wire helped control the grazing of cattle on cropland and windmills provided the water for parched soil and livestock. But the steel plow, which made it possible to break up the tough matting of the prairie grasses, is the invention that did more than anything else to spread the intensive agriculture that has been practiced on the Plains ever since. During this period agriculture changed. It was no longer subsistence level because farmers were selling crops. This was the beginning of modern agribusiness.

Railroads venturing west of the Mississippi River carried the products of western soils--cattle and grain--to markets in the rapidly industrializing East. Clearly, the land and its rich soils have had a remarkable impact on U.S. history. See handout #3.

Additional Activity #1: Your students could produce a slide program or a videotape on the Native American cultures that existed in your area. The presentation should highlight the interaction of the Native Americans with the regional environment.

Additional Activity #2: Inform your students that they are stranded on an island and can have only 10 items with which to survive indefinitely. In small groups, have the students select the items and rank them in order of importance. Discuss the lists and the reasons for selecting the items. Several of the items should enable the students to establish agriculture on the island.

Addresses: The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) helps landowners conserve the soil and water resources of the United States. The SCS has published environmental education materials on soil and water conservation. Contact your local SCS office, or write: Educational Relations, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, D.C. 20013. The Soil Conservation Society of America (SCSA) has a variety of environmental education materials concerning many aspects of conservation. Contact them for a publication list: 7515 Northwest Ankeny RD, Ankeny, Iowa 50021.


Billard, Jules B., ed. The World of the American Indian. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1974.

Mazwell, James A., ed. America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest Association, 1978.

Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931.

Handout #1 How People Have Used Soils

We have always needed food, water, and materials to build shelter. The land and its soils have always provided these resources. This was especially true with the early Native Americans.

Native Americans worked closely with the land. They could not farm large areas or dig large mines. Native-American cultures were greatly affected by the climate, the soils, and the vegetation. For instance, only a few of the Native Americans in the Great Plains established farming villages. In many areas of the Great Plains the climate and soils made farming difficult. These Indians could not grow enough food like those living in the Southwest and the Ohio Valley. Most moved from place to place living in temporary camps and following their primary food source--the American bison.

Find out which Native Americans lived in your area many years ago. Read about them and find the answer to these questions.

  1. Which Native Americans lived in your area?
  2. What types of food did they use?
  3. How did they get food, water, and shelter?
  4. Did they live in villages or travel from place to place?
  5. Could they farm large areas for food?

Handout #2
How People Have Used Soils

Today we still rely upon the land and its soils. It provides us with many natural resources. But we can change large areas of land with our advanced technology and machines. Most of us do not live directly from the land as the Native Americans did. Instead we are a part of a global system, obtaining food, water, and material for shelter. In the process, we have both helped and harmed the land.

Using encyclopedias and your own experience, answer the following questions:

  1. List some of the ways our use of technology has harmed the land.
  2. List some of the ways our use of technology has helped the land.
  3. Many scientists say that we should use less technology. A bad decision could harm the land for many years. Other scientists say that we depend upon the use of technology to supply the goods we need and want; we should use more technology. Which group do you think is correct? Why?

Handout #3
How People Have Used Soils

Below is a list of questions about these two periods of U.S. history. Get together in small groups with your classmates. Research the topics. Later, share the information that you find with your class in an oral or written report, in a play or other creative expressions.

  1. Why did Europeans move to the Americas during the 1600s and 1700s?
  2. Describe the life of a typical family during the 1600s or 1700s.
  3. What were land rushes? How did they originate?
  4. What was the Homestead Act of 1862? Why was it important?
  5. Why did pioneers move into the Great Plains?
  6. Describe the life of a pioneer family during the 1850s.
  7. What is the history of inventions such as the steel plow, barbed wire, and windmills?
  8. What difficulties did railroads have in the westward expansion?
  9. What advantages did railroads bring to the western pioneers?
  10. Describe farming practices during the 1700s and 1800s, and compare them with modern practices.
  11. How did this westward movement affect the Native Americans, their agricultural practices, and their use of the land?
  12. How did ethnic groups influence the settlement of the United States? What has been their impact of American agriculture?


			10 points		8-9 points		7 or fewer points
RELATED 		use of soil		referred to soil	soil was
PROJECT TO		abuse of soil		indirectly		hardly
SOIL			importance of soil	did not make good	Smentioned

CREATIVITY		attention holding	pretty standard		ineffective
			and innovative		method of		method of
			method of		presentation		presentation
			presentation		interesting		boring

  Organization		well organized--	skipped around,		HUH?
			easy to understand	but eventually
						covered it all

  Presentation		knew material		read from notes		no notes
			thoroughly					left info out
			referred to notes

			info expressed		info expressed		cannot express
			clearly the first	easily when		info to others
			time			questioned

  Delivery		spoke clearly and	spoke up when		mumbled or 
			loudly			reminded		barely heard
			no distracting		some distracting	lots of
			behaviors		behaviors		distracting

Evidence of		really knew what	made the attempt,	none
  Practice		they were doing		but had some		winged it
  Beforehand		flowed nicely		problems		no clear

FARMER BROWN OLD MACDONALD DUST BOWL 10 8-9 7 > VISUALS Workmanship eye-catching neatly done sloppy neatly done interesting boring creative gets the point across Use uses visuals to pointed to it did not use improve presentation occasionally TEAMWORK all members made did not work equally one or two did valuable contribution could not agree all the work-- to project did not get along well ATTITUDE really positive did it because they thought it was had to a stupid idea confident not so sure reluctant had fun just good enough work, not fun LISTENING courteous listened, easily doodled, listened to other distracted talked presentations behaved rudely POINTS POSSIBLE 140 YOUR TOTAL POINTS YOUR PERCENTAGE GRADE PEOPLE IN YOUR GROUP

Sherow's Homepage
Kansas State University | K-State History Department

Proceedings and Resource Guide: Table of Contents