• Length:
    7 Weeks
  • Effort:
    4–6 hours per week
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  • Course Type:
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Basic knowledge of life sciences (chemistry, biology, physics) is needed. Basic knowledge in Soil Science is strongly recommended, a short introduction to basic soil concepts is offered in the course.


edX Prize 2020 Finalist

About this course

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Soils form the foundation of sustainable development. They grow our food, fiber and fuel, are a habitat for organisms, buffer and purify water and safeguard archaeological legacies. It is therefore of vital importance to understand how soil properties vary across tropical ecosystems and landscapes, and how these properties affect biodiversity and livelihoods. So if you want to understand tropical soils and want to learn how to keep those soils healthy, this course is for you! You'll need basic knowledge of life sciences.

In this course, we will go on virtual excursions to explore the major soils of five biomes: forests, mountains, grasslands, deserts, and wetlands. With the support of JRC and FAO, instructors from KU Leuven and ISRIC will explain which soils develop under certain conditions, what their most important traits are and how those insights can make land use more sustainable. Our partners from different research projects all over the tropics moreover will introduce you to their work and show you real-life examples of how they apply soil knowledge through engaging videos and case studies.

What you'll learn

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Through this course you will:

  • Understand how soils are formed and why they occur in certain climates and landscape positions
  • Learn to recognize and classify the major soils of the world (WRB 2016)
  • Learn to determine the opportunities and challenges of each soil type in relation to biodiversity, livelihoods, and management
  • Learn to interpret soil maps
  • Gain insight into possible solutions and management practices to preserve or restore soil functions and learn to apply these insights by means of case-studies

Optional module : Basic soil concepts
This module is aimed to introduce/refresh the basic soil concepts needed to understand the rest of the course. This module is not obligatory to complete the course.

Module 1 :Soils in the tropics
Introduction on the tropics, main soil forming factors, soil functions, soil threats, and soil classification.

Module 2 : Forests
Introduction of the forest zone by a virtual excursion through the Congo Basin and Borneo. Formation, traits, and management of Ferralsols, Acrisol, Histosols, and Cambisols. Cases on agroforestry, coffee production and shifting cultivation.

Module 3 : Mountains
Introduction of the mountain zone through a virtual excursion at the Kilimanjaro and the Ethiopian Highlands. Formation, traits, and management of Cryosols, Andosols, Nitisols, Luvisols, Vertisols, Leptosols, Calcisols, and Regosols. Cases on landslides, rice cultivation and termites.

Module 4 : Grasslands
Introduction of the grassland zone through a virtual excursion in Cameroon and the Dry Chaco in Argentina. Formation, traits, and management of Arenosols, Lixisols, Plinthosols, Stagnosols and Planosols, Phaozems and Solonetz. Cases on sustainable farming on Plinthosols, Integrated Soil Fertility Management and land use in the Mount Elgon region.

Module 5 : Deserts
Introduction of the desert zone through a virtual excursion through the Sahara and Danakil deserts. Formation, traits, and management of Gypsisols, Arenosols, and Solonchaks. Cases on Archeomigrations and reforestation.

Module 6 : Rivers and wetlands
Introduction on wetlands through a virtual excursion along the Nile and the Pantanal, Brasil. Formation, traits, and management of Fluvisols, Gleysols, and Vertisols. Cases on acid Fluvisols, the Niger deltaand data density.

Meet your instructors

Karen Vancampenhout
Professor of Soil Science, KU Leuven
KU Leuven
Seppe Deckers
Emeritus professor of Soil Science, KU Leuven
KU Leuven
Stephan Mantel
Head of World Soil Museum - ISRIC World Soil Information
ISRIC World Soil Information

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Learner testimonials

"As an outsider of the discipline, I couldn't find a better opportunity to both resume my basics and enrich them with more insights on soils in the Tropics. An important strength of the course was how it wonderfully linked knowledge on soil properties to the livelihoods of people inhabiting and/or using the landscape. This has put great emphasis on the importance of a constant 'knowledge cooperation' with local populations and on enhancing a responsible use of natural resources." - Previous learner