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A practical application for school lab work

Perham High School students assist with the annual water quality testing at Prairie Wind Middle School. Assisting this year were Ben Palubicki, Justin Mitchell, Derek Wallace and James Sanford.1 / 5
Tools of the water testing trade. Then, the data is generated by computer.2 / 5
Teacher Rondi Ulmer, with NDSU shirt, with students during the annual water testing project.3 / 5
Don Sirucek, right, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, assists with the water testing project at Prairie Wind Middle School.4 / 5
Pictured from left to right, Thor Foley, Cole Carigan, and Roxy Kading, conducting soil absorption testing in Dan Christenson's 5th grade science class at Prairie Wind Middle School.5 / 5

Water and soil data for the Perham area has been collected for the past 14 years by students at Prairie Wind Middle School.

Sampling has been an annual classroom project in the Rondi Ulmer classroom--ever since the new middle school opened. Students are asked to bring in a sample of the drinking water from their home or farm.

Their findings from these water testings?

Groundwater quality appears to be improving in the Perham area. In fact, this year all 100 samples of water were determined safe.

The percentage of water identified as "unsafe" was as high as 10 percent when the classroom project started. As years progressed, the results improved steadily, down to only 3 percent the past few years.

"We're finding a lot of good water in the Perham area, compared to seven years ago," said Don Sirucek, Department of Agriculture, who has been assisting in the Perham classrooms with the project for the past seven years.

Students bring in samples from their homes, and they are computer-tested.

"We've probably tested 1,000 samples over seven years, and the data is quite good," said Sirucek.

The Department of Ag likes working with the school, said teacher Ulmer, because they get a much broader sampling of area wells. When public nitrate testings are held, it is typically senior citizens who have the time, or those who already suspect they have water trouble anyway, said Ulmer. Meanwhile, working adults with families can't often take the time to go to the public nitrate testings.

"With the eighth grade, we get a much better cross section of wells in the area," said Ulmer. To top it off, she gives extra credit to students who bring in samples from other wells--such as neighbors or other family members.

Water quality awareness has improved vastly.

"Fourteen years ago, we had parents who would not allow their kids to participate. They were afraid that the Department of Ag would reprimand them....or that the data would be turned over to some state agency," said Ulmer.

Another important component to the testing project is location of the water source. In the "old days" when Ulmer first began the tests, the wells were located rather primitively--by finding the spot on a map and making a dot.

Now, students take home GPS units for precise locations. The school has many GPS units, thanks to grants from the 549 Family Foundation and the Middle School Association. With the water test results and the exact site of the well, the Department of Agriculture has everything they need to track water quality, said Ulmer.

Because of the sandy soil in the area, fertilizer percolates quickly into the groundwater, said Ulmer.

"The nature of our soil is the reason we have more nitrate problems than other parts of the country," she noted.

Why does the water quality seem to be improving in the area, based on the school tests?

"It is a whole of people doing lots of things right," said Ulmer, including modern farm practices and homeowner education. "There is more awareness out there, and people are coming together for the common good...I'd like to think that the homeowner is thinking twice about how the lawn is fertilized; that the golf course crews are doing it the right way; and that farmers are modifying their methods."

Studies indicate that between 5 percent and 25 percent of the private wells in greater Minnesota have nitrate levels above the federal drinking water standard. Nitrates in drinking water have been shown to have serious health risks, MDA Commissioner Gene Hugoson said. "Minnesotans need to determine their risks and, in some cases, take appropriate steps to reduce or eliminate nitrates in their drinking water."


Absorption experiment helps grade 5 students understand area's sandy soil

Younger students at Prairie Wind Middle School are learning about the qualities of soil, and how moisture is absorbed.

Students are asked to bring in samples of topsoil, and a sample of sand.

"We make three different mixtures--one strictly sand, one topsoil, and one a mixture of sand and topsoil," said fifth grade science teacher Dan Christenson.

The students conduct a five-minute percolation test by pouring 100 ml of water into the cup, and measure how much flowed through.