Delving into the foraging habits of Pogonomyrmex barbatus might not exactly sound thrilling.

But for Josh Breighner, his science fair project has been an adventure.

Since the start of the school year, the Dallastown Area senior has examined the way the red harvester ant uses magnetic fields to find food. He constructed all the experiment's materials himself — including an ant farm box to house his subjects — and did most of the work at school.

"The ants were actually in my house at one point, over winter break," Breighner said. "My mom wasn't too happy — but it's all in the name of science."

He's been participating in Dallastown's Science and Engineering Fair since he was a freshman, but the 18-year-old didn't start to take it seriously until last year.

That passion earned him first-place ribbons in last year's Dallastown and York County science fairs for a project that examined how effective cigarette filters are.

He's not sure how much time he spent working with the ants this year — it could've been 100 hours, he said — but this weekend, he'll see how that work paid off.

Tradition: The 54th annual Dallastown Area High School Science and Engineering Fair runs Friday through Sunday.

It will feature more than 300 projects in 11 scientific categories, and winners will earn $3,000 in cash prizes from individual and corporate sponsors.

The fair is a long-standing tradition for the school, said Mark Ilyes, science department chair and physics teacher.

The school has sent students to the International Science and Engineering Fair for the past two years — and 46 of the past 53 years.

"The science fair has always been an experience here," he said. "Every Dallastown student at some point in their high school career does an experiment."

First- and second-place winners will have the opportunity to advance to the York County Science and Engineering Fair at Penn State York in March.

Last year, Dallastown students made up 35 percent of the entrants at that fair. They earned 41 percent of the first-place awards, 35 percent of the second-place awards and three of five grand champion awards.

Only a handful of other schools participate in the fair, Ilyes said.

"Why aren't more schools doing this?" he said.

Ilyes said the test-heavy education system could be to blame. Science projects also take a lot of time for both students and teachers, but they are still an invaluable tool to teach "real science," he said.

"I think science projects teach you things that preparing for tests could never teach you," he said.

Future scientists: Junior Cheyenne Philson's biochemistry project demonstrated, to her surprise, the unpredictably of science experiments.

Intrigued by ethanol as an energy source, the 16-year-old decided to use lettuce and try to make it at home. But there was a hitch in the complex procedure, she said: Instead of yielding her expected 90 percent ethanol, she only got 1 percent — likely because of the materials she used.

"I'm actually really interested in trying different materials to actually see if I can succeed," she said.

She's participated in science fairs before but never really took it seriously, she said.

This time will be different.

"I put a lot of heart and soul into this, so hopefully I do well," Philson said.

Freshman Ziyue Zhang's chemistry project matched his hypothesis: Increased oxygen does in fact make a heat pack hotter.

"I enjoy science. I think it's one of the things I'd like to get into in the future," the 15-year-old said.

The 54th annual Dallastown Area High School Science and Engineering Fair will take place Friday through Sunday. The fair is open to the public from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday and from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. Projects will be displayed in the high school science classrooms. An awards program will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in the high school auditorium.

— Reach Mollie Durkin at mdurkin@yorkdispatch.com.