Nick Balster


Nick Balster – Associate Professor

I am interested in the remarkable “communication” between plants and soil that control the cycling of energy and materials. I study these interactions within a variety of settings including forests, prairies, nurseries, and urban ecosystems, using a variety of approaches from traditional mass balance to stable isotopes. I also study the scholarship of teaching and learning (K-16) related to environmental education also within a variety of settings from the classroom to the very structure of educational systems.

UW-Madison, Department of Soil Science
1525 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1299, USA
Office: 341 King Hall
Phone: 608.263.5719
Fax: 608.265.2595


Program Affiliations

Department of Soil Science
Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Teaching Academy of UW-Madison (Faculty Chair)
Wisconsin Ecology Group (Executive Committee)


B.S. Forest Management, 1992, North Carolina State University

M.S. Forest Science, 1995, Michigan Technological University

Ph.D. Forest Science, 1999, University of Idaho

Teaching and Research Overview

The focus of my lab is roughly split between teaching (60%) and research (40%), however I am also active in extension to forest nurseries and educational outreach. I particularly seek opportunities that combine two or more of these areas, as the boundaries between them are often blurred. Please check out my web site ( to learn all about my lab, teaching, research, extension, and outreach. You will also find a copy of my CV, as well as other fun information about the Balster Lab.

My work in teaching and learning involves classroom instruction, outreach, and education research that target the “Nature Deficit Disorder” and pedagogical practices that make learning effective and sustained beyond the classroom. As a member of national organizations in education, faculty chair of the UW-Madison Teaching Academy, and as collaborator with K-12 schools, my scholarship in teaching spans multiple scales and settings focused on the essential learning outcomes identified by The Association of American Universities. Although I highly value these collaborations, my love for teaching comes alive in the classroom and interactions with my students. I currently teach 7 courses per year, either alone or in teams and thus extend a big thank you to all my students who have allowed me the opportunity to teach – I learn more from them than they will ever know!

To find out more about my teaching activities and courses, click on the Teaching tab at

My research interests center around understanding the eco-physiological relationships that underlie the fantastic interactions between soils and plants, including the organisms that modify this continuum. Specifically, I investigate the movement of energy and material within this continuum and seek understanding into how this movement is controlled and affected by environmental change whether natural or anthropogenic. I am particularly interested in ecological engineering and the sustainability of human-dominated ecosystems. Because I focus on quantifiable material common to many ecosystems, my interests are not limited to any one environment. Consequently, the setting for my research includes forests, managed ecosystems (e.g. tree nurseries), grasslands, as well as urban environments, which welcomes collaborations across a range of disciplines. My research is hypothesis-driven and tends toward experimental discovery, as opposed to descriptive observation.

My research program also includes educational research, which has resulted in many products from outreach material to new courses to referred journal articles.

To find out more about my research activities, job opportunities, and research collaborations, click on the Research tab at

To round out my interests, I also maintain an active program in educational outreach and soil extension to forest nurseries. My outreach program embraces the Wisconsin Idea of extending the university and in particular, soil science, beyond campus boundaries. I simply love bringing the joy of science and learning about the natural world to anyone that will listen and thus have enjoyed many wonderful outreach experiences. Although I do not have a formal extension appointment, I have provided soil fertility consultation to forest nurseries for some time. This service builds on my expertise in forest nurseries and typically consists of an annual soil fertility analysis and subsequent soil recommendations relative to fertilizers, lime, and organic matter. This service is fee-based to cover the cost of analysis and interpretation. I enjoy providing this extension to many forest nurseries across the country, as it has led to opportunities for both research and outreach.

If you are interested in outreach and/or extension services, please click on the Outreach tab or Nursery Soil link on the BALSTER LAB WEBPAGE at

Selected Publications

Selbig, W.R., and N.J. Balster. 2010. Evaluation of turf grass and prairie vegetated rain gardens in a clay and sand soil: Madison, Wisconsin, water years 2004-2008. USGS Scientific Report 2009. (In press).

(Education) Balster, N.J., and M. Nocco. 2010. Is all science created equal? Uncovering student perceptions of scientific discourse. J. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. (In press).

(Education) Havlin, J., N.J. Balster, D. Ferris, T. Thompson, and T. Smith. 2010. Trends in soils science education and employment. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. (Accepted).

(Education) N.J. Balster, C. Pfund, R. Rediske, and J. Branchaw. 2010. Entering research: A course that creates community and structure for beginning undergraduate researchers in the STEM disciplines. CBE-Life Sciences Education. (In press).

Balster, N.J., J.D. Marshall, and M. Clayton. 2009. Coupling tree-ring d13C and d15N to test the

impact of fertilization on mature Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) stands across the interior northwest, USA. Tree Physiology 29:1491-1501.

Fujinuma, R., N.J. Balster, and J. Norman. 2009. An improved model of nitrogen release for surface-applied controlled-release fertilizer. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 73:2043-2050.

(Education) N.J. Balster. 2009. Vocation and occupation: An innovative course in the physical sciences to help students link personality with a rewarding career. NACTA 53:2-10.

(Extension) Balster, N.J., and R. Fujinuma. 2009. Estimating N-release from controlled-release fertilizer in forest tree nurseries. UW-Extension Publication A3886. I-5C-0908.

Thompson, A.M, A.C. Paul, and N.J. Balster. 2008. Physical and hydraulic properties of engineered soil media for bioretention basins. Trans. ASABE 51(2):499-514.

Wells, A.J., N.J. Balster, S. VanWychen, and J. Harrington. 2008. Differences in belowground heterogeneity within a restoration of a dewatered reservoir in southwestern Wisconsin. Restoration Ecology 16(4):678-688. Cover Feature.