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Experimenting with success; PHS Science Research team has decade-long history of achievement

Connie Vandermay/FOCUS Perham High School's Science Research team is heading to a regional competition this Saturday. Team members are, front row, left to right: Maria Lornson, Racole Karles and Seth Stafki. Back row: Jay Klatt, Paul Schoeneberger, Alphonse Schoeneberger and Michael Thompson. Not pictured is Riley Tostenson.1 / 2
Connie Vandermay/FOCUS Perham High School junior Maria Lornson, a member of the Science Research team, stands next to her final presentation of the results of her experiments with E. coli.2 / 2

The science fair that the Perham High School Science Research team is heading off to this weekend is nothing like the traditional "make a homemade volcano" science fairs that most kids remember from their elementary school years.

"It's real research. Real experiments," teacher and coach Shawn Stafki said in an interview after school on Monday, along with some of the eight students on the team.

This Saturday, the Science Research team will head to Minnesota Western Regional Science Fair at Minnesota State University in Moorhead to compete for awards, cash prizes and scholarships, as well as the opportunity to advance to state and international competitions.

"We've done well," said Stafki, who has been leading the Science Research group for the last decade. "The last two years in Perham, all of the students advanced to state, which is pretty unheard of for a team."

Over the years, Perham's Science Research team has also had many opportunities to send students to the International Science and Engineering Fair. In nine of the last 11 years, a student from Perham has represented the western region at this international fair.

Just like a traditional science experiment, the process for each team member starts with a question. From there, they each develop a hypothesis and then begin collecting research, sometimes for many months. They conduct any necessary experiments, compile data and come to a conclusion. All of which is done on students' own time, as well as the teacher's.

"It's a lot of work," Stafki said. Which is why the number of students participating at regionals varies from year to year, anywhere from 50 to 110 students.

"Coming up with an idea is the hardest part. We want original stuff. The competition gets pretty stiff," Stafki said, adding that he has seen, "very cool things over the years," and this year is no exception.

The high school kids are asking questions such as: "Does carbon dioxide in water affect daphne and dragonflies?" and "Do the wetlands near Fergus Falls have pollution because of nearby farmland?"

There is a research project on Escherichia coli, another on visual cues that slow down food consumption and another on the eating habits of whitetail deer.

For some students, their conclusions were in line with their original expectations. Senior Seth Stafki, for example, wasn't surprised when his research indicated an increase in nitrates in wetlands near farms.

But others were surprised by some of their outcomes. Junior Maria Lornson, who experimented with E. coli, was taken aback when her experiments showed soapy water alone did little to kill the virus. She also didn't expect to find that slate countertops held a lot more bacteria than granite and marble.

Freshman Jay Klatt was surprised when his research indicated that temperature affects food choices of deer - they chose oats over soybeans, corn, pumpkins or apples when the temperature dipped.

After researching the nutritional content of the favorite food of deer, Klatt said, "I found it surprising that corn had almost no nutrients at all."

Junior Michael Thompson built wooden frames for an experimental double-layered garden. On the lower level, he grew plants the traditional way, in a layer of soil. About two feet above those plants, in a wooden box with a Polyglass bottom, he grew a second layer of plants, this time in a layer of gel. The transparent gel was used in the top tray so sunlight could still reach the bottom layer.

His preliminary findings seem to conclude that it is possible to grow double the amount of plants in the same amount of surface area, as both levels of his plants survived.

As the team completes the final steps of their projects for Saturday's competition, their excitement is obvious.

And though most of the kids on the team are first-time competitors, a few, like Seth Stafki, have years of experience. Stafki's been on the Science Research team since seventh grade, and all five times that he's competed, he's advanced on to state. Though he's never been nervous before, he admitted that this year, "I'm a little nervous, because I want to keep the streak going."

Teacher Stafki wouldn't comment on how he thinks the kids will do this year: "You just never know."