Earthworms help bring together students in Tennessee Tech's agriculture concentrations

Who ever thought that ordinary earthworms could actually bring people together?

Tennessee Tech University agriculture faculty Gary Bachman, Bruce Greene and Larry Click apparently did. They applied for and were awarded a faculty research grant for a multi-level undergraduate research project using earthworms to process animal manures and other organic matter to create an environmentally friendly potting soil component called vermicompost.

"All agriculture majors are required to participate in a senior research project, but students in the various concentrations traditionally haven't teamed up to work together on those projects," Bachman said.

The interrelated levels of this research project, however, allow TTU's senior agriculture students from several different academic concentrations — such as animal science, horticulture, agricultural engineering technology, agribusiness management and environmental agriscience — to work together.

"It helps to teach them that their different areas of expertise are all related," he said.

In formulating the project, Bachman said, he and the other two professors chose to use a novel approach to try to change the traditional senior research standard. For example, the students work separately on different projects and meet to discuss their results with the group.

"This is an approach that lab groups use in graduate schools, encompassing a number of side experiments that all contribute to a larger whole. I like to describe the project as a big puzzle, with each student adding a different piece to that puzzle," he said.

But what exactly is vermicompost, and why is the project centered on its production?

"Vermicompost isn't really a compost in the traditional sense. It's simply what remains after the worms have processed the organic material," Bachman explained.

One of its chief advantages is that it can be produced quite rapidly.

"A pound of worms has the potential to process a pound of organic waste in 48 hours, but it may take several months for the stabilization process to be complete in the traditional composting process," he said.

Other aspects of the TTU research project will include learning to use vermicompost to maximize seed germination and enhance hormone-like growth responses in herbaceous perennials and other container-grown plants.

"These are just puzzles waiting to be solved, and this project is an opportunity for our undergraduate students to contribute pieces to these puzzles," Bachman said. 

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