New agriculture courses headed to RCC

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By Christina Espinoza – Special to Viewpoints

By Christina Espinoza – Special to Viewpoints

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there is a severe need for soil scientists and unless replacements are found by 2010, the U.S. may not have enough to conduct vital research.

“The USDA is scheduled to retire most of their work force next year and there’re no soil scientists to fill their places,” said Heather Smith, an instructor for the life science department at Riverside City College.

Smith explained that the elimination of environmental science programs – once offered at a number of universities – may also be part of the problem. Eliminating the programs affected undergraduate science majors by prohibiting the completion of required soil credit hours for employment within the United States Department of Agriculture.

In an effort to assist with this problem, RCC’s life science department and UC Riverside, plan on offering new online soil science courses at RCC in fall of 2009.

Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, the program will feature lower division, transferable online soil classes that will give a diverse body of students the opportunity for federal employment.

“RCC and UCR are both Hispanic serving institutions and the USDA has the lowest percent of Hispanic employees (among Federal agencies),” Smith said. “We’re offering 13 students who complete the program, an internship with the USDA.”

Cornel Gleason, a former science engineering technician at the South West Research Institute, explained why soil scientists are so crucial to the U.S.

Gleason explained that in 1962, Rachel Carson, author of the book “Silent Spring,” and an organic biologist from the University of Chicago, warned the world about the long term effects of using pesticides. She cautioned against using the chemical DDT found inside most pesticides.

While Carson was ridiculed by chemical manufacturers, she continued to stress the importance of putting new policies in place to protect human health and the environment.

“She tried to convince people that the chemical DDT would contaminate species in a particular order: birds, fish and finally humans,” Gleason said. “No one wanted to listen to her, but she was absolutely right.”

Carson warned that if birds were exposed to DDT, it would cause thinning in the birds’ egg shells. She predicted that heavy birds would break or crack the thin eggs during incubation.

“We’ve been carefully monitoring the bald eagle on Catalina Island for 50 years because of Rachel Carson,” Gleason said. “Last spring, two chicks hatched without human influence and this was the first time we’d seen a successful hatching since our observation began.”

DDT was originally manufactured at a chemical plant in Torrance and the contamination spread deep into the soil.

“DDT eventually contaminated the soil in Torrance, California and then moved into the water wells,” Gleason said. “Because some of the water wells were being used as drinking water, they had to be shut down.”

Gleason briefly described how contamination could easily flow to the ocean by moving through the soil and this, he advised, is where soil scientists are most needed.

“We need soil scientists because we don’t know what environmental impact DDT will have,” Gleason said. “In fact if we didn’t have soil scientists, I guess we’d be drinking the water.”

To find out more about the online soil program at RCC, visit http://www.academic.rcc.edu/soil.

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