Next generation of soil scientists in Switzerland – recognizing challenges and finding solutions

Nurturing a hands-on approach to find practical solutions to current soil challenges. Given the growing realization of the importance of soils, soil science education in Europe is steadily growing and becoming a stand-alone science.

Soil excursion in nice condition. Photo by Stéphane Burgos, HALF

As the negative impacts of our changing climate continue to trigger environmental upheaval, the importance of soils for regulating a multitude of ecosystem services is increasingly at the forefront of environmental and agricultural policies worldwide. Given the growing realization of the importance of soils, soil science education in Europe has been steadily growing over the past decades from playing a supporting role in environmental and agricultural sciences, to becoming a stand-alone science in its own right (See article: Preliminary assessment of the cross-European educational chart). It is clear that overcoming many of the environmental challenges brought about by climate change will depend on properly equipping future soil scientists with a comprehensive educational “tool belt” to do so.

As the main focus of EJP Soil is to improve sustainable management of agricultural soils in a changing climate, the following will provide insight into how soil science education in Switzerland is contributing to this overall goal. In Switzerland, various aspects of soil science are taught at multiple educational levels, from practice-based universities of applied sciences (called “fachhochschule”) as well as research universities. Stéphane Burgos, a professor of soil science at Berner Fachhochschule (HAFL) in Zollikofen, and Emmanuel Frossard, a professor of plant nutrition at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, helped shed light on the matter. Stéphane has been teaching soil and agricultural sciences for over twenty years, the past five of which have been with HAFL, while Emmanuel has been a professor at ETH since 1994. In the following, these two well-established soil science educators share their experiences about teaching soil science in Switzerland, about how this field has changed over the years in response to climate change, and about what they see as the key topics that all young soil scientists should know moving forward.

The next generation of soil scientists

At HAFL, Stéphane teaches primarily at the Bachelors level, with students ranging from 20-25 years old, and coming from all across Switzerland. Roughly, 50% come from a farming background, where either a parent or grandparent runs a farm, and half of these students carry on this tradition following their studies. Those who do not go on to becoming farmers themselves, often go into teaching, agricultural extension, or a similarly more applied career often involving soil science. Emmanuel teaches students at Bachelor, Masters, and PhD levels. At HAFL, most students at the BS and MS level are Swiss, but in contrast, the PhD students come from all over the world. Most students do not have clear career goals at the start of their studies. They choose this field of study motivated by their desire to help solve problems and make a positive impact on agricultural systems. Ultimately, they go on to a broad range of careers, from top administrative positions, scientists, educators, and farmers.

Soil from student’s farms from all over Switzerland. Photo by Stéphane Burgos, HALF

How the soil science curriculum has changed over the past decades

According to Stéphane’s experience, a great deal has changed over the past twenty years in regards to teaching. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we had the knowledge.” But this is definitely not the case today. In an environment where everything is changing, we must face the fact that we do not know everything, nor can we accurately predict what will happen in the future. “That is why we must actively seek out answers to the key questions from farmers, taking into account climatic and ecological factors to the best of our ability,” says Stéphane. For example, some key problems challenging producers today include dealing with seasonal dryness and choosing appropriate crop varieties that are more resilient to environmental stresses. Furthermore, there is a push from governmental policies to include more courses and information on ecological implications of different management practices, and practical ways to improve the sustainability of our agricultural soils.

At ETH, Emmanuel has great flexibility in developing his teaching curriculum. As such, his approach for preparing students to manage soils in a changing climate is to provide them with the main building blocks of agricultural and soil sciences. These courses include plant physiology, fertilization, and nutrient cycling, all of which are key to understanding and managing agricultural systems. Furthermore, highlighting the role of soil as the main driver in crop nutrition. Potential impacts of climate change are not taught directly as separate courses, but are integrated into the existing courses (i.e. impacts of fertilization on N2O emissions). In addition to these key topics, additional courses are added as the need for a better understanding of these issues arises, such as micronutrient deficiency in plants, and heavy metals in soils. In a similar manner, at HAFL Stéphane is in charge of developing his own course curriculum. His specific topics present traditional soil knowledge in the context of actual problems faced by farmers in Switzerland. Furthermore, schools like HAFL are beginning to study the needs of future employers within this field to ensure that through its curriculum students are well prepared for the job market following graduation.

One unifying principle both professors share is their strong will to provide hands-on experience to learning. “In my experience,” says Emmanuel, “the biggest change in the curriculum over the years has been an increase in participatory approaches to learning.” For Stéphane, it is important to teach his students practical exercises and techniques that can help them get into the field, down to the soil, to see what is going on. “One sign of a successful teacher,” he says, “is when students are independent of the teacher at graduation.” He encourages students to recognize problems and find solutions on their own.

Important aspects of soil science that students should learn

Both Stéphane and Emmanuel agree that one of the main challenges facing Swiss agricultural soils is the shrinking land area available due to sealing of soil surfaces as roads and buildings multiply. “The soil is diminishing,” says Stephane, “and thus we need to conserve the fertility and organic matter content of the soil remaining.” On the same note, Emmanuel recommends a precautionary principle concerning the management of agricultural soils. “It takes thousands of years for soils to develop, and when it is gone, it is gone.” It is important for both Emmanuel and Stéphane that their students understand the importance of soils, and that they are motivated to take care of what little soil we have left. 

While the first step may be to motivate students to have a genuine interest in maintaining our agricultural soils, both professors agree that the second step is to provide them with tools to do so. “It is important for students to be able to link the understanding of soil processes with management practices,” says Emmanuel. “This must be done while considering the larger ecological, biophysical, socioeconomic, and political contexts surrounding a given system.” We are beginning to realize that there is no ‘one-size-fits all’ solution to a given problem, and that answers must be found that consider the broader implications of a given practice. Stéphane hopes that his students gain the confidence in themselves to recognize problems in the field when they encounter them, and the motivation to find solutions by asking questions and interacting with an interdisciplinary network of peers.

Bringing this Swiss perspective into the larger European vision, the EJP SOIL programme aims to contribute towards these goals as well. Not only through bringing challenges associated with agricultural soil management to the forefront of science and policy, but also by making a thorough investigation of soil science curricula across Europe. Here we ask questions regarding what is currently taught broadly in soil science curricula, and how this foundation can be improved to better prepare students for being able to solve future soil challenges. In the coming years EJP SOIL will develop its own PhD school, with a unique soil science curriculum. The hope is that by introducing students to a wide range of soil challenges, environmental gradients, and sociopolitical climates, they will be exposed not only to these challenges, but also to the ideas for potential solutions and to a strong international network of peers that can help one another along the way.

Soil excursion in difficult condition. Photo by Stéphane Burgos, HALF


This article is written based on interviews with Stéphane Burgos, professor of soil science at Berner Fachhochschule (HAFL) in Zollikofen, and Emmanuel Frossard, professor of plant nutrition at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich.


Gina Garland, EJP SOIL National communication representative, Switzerland:

More information: