Mike Konen cannot keep from chuckling when he talks about his job teaching soil science and physical geography to graduate and undergraduate students.
The subject itself is not funny, but the attention and excitement he attaches to what many people refer to as dirt, casts it in an ironic light.
To further the irony, the light he has shined on soil was reflected back onto him this month when the professor in NIU’s Department of Geography received the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.
“I was surprised I won,” he said. “Last year, I was nominated after the committee told me. I suspected I would be nominated again this year. There are a lot of excellent teachers nominated.”
Receiving the award is an honor, he said, and winning tells him that he can incite students to be just as enthused as he is about soil.
“I love soil, and I love teaching,” said Konen, a farmer turned college scholar. “Some people call me a soil nerd. But there’s more to soil than just being dirt.”
The first thing he tells his students at the start of a semester is they will get their hands dirty and shoes muddy. He teaches his courses in two segments: in the classroom and in the field.
“Teaching my classes is rewarding. In the field, I can show students the different layers of soil. From them, we can tell what has happened on the property in the last 100 to 200 years,” Konen said. “We can tell if a plot was farmed or if any buildings were once on it.”
From its color, layer thickness and vegetation, Konen and students determine how old it is, how well water drains from it and, if someone wants to build on it, how it will react to development.
Before attending college, Konen worked as a dairy farmer. Later, he earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Iowa State University. He received his master’s degree from Ohio State University.
While working for an environmental engineering firm, Konen became interested in soil and wanted to learn more. He wanted to know why soil is different some places, how and why it changes and how people impact soil properties.
“Soil tells a story,” he said. “I like teaching my students what to look for in finding that story. I know many of them would say ‘That guy loves soil.’ Yes, I do love soil and I like teaching, too.”
Since he started teaching at NIU in 1998, the rural DeKalb County resident’s enthusiasm for the earth has put the university on the map with other universities that offer similar courses.
He introduced NIU and his students to the American Society of Agronomy Soil Judging Contest where a team of undergraduate students compete against other universities to describe soil properties and interpret potential land use.
Last spring, in only its fourth year of existence, the NIU soil judging team placed fifth at the national soil judging contest in Lubbock, Texas. On Saturday, April 30, team members will compete in their third consecutive national contest in Bend, Ore.
Team member Clint Bailey was one of the students who nominated Konen.
“I am sure that many students will tell you in this nomination how Dr. Konen’s creative teaching style has turned what can be often deemed a boring and dry subject into something interesting and exciting,” Bailey told nominating committee members.
“I think what truly separates Dr. Konen from the rest is the passion he has for his subjects and how far he will go to instill that passion into others.”