Tapping trees: Students learn art of sugaring and more

The sap has stopped dripping and the taps have been pulled, and now students at Forest Area Middle School can enjoy the sweet reward of their hard work: maple syrup.

The northern Michigan students have spent the past several weeks not only learning the art and history of making maple syrup, but also working in the woods to produce the golden liquid. They capped the season earlier this week with a pancake dinner. The cakes, of course, were topped with their own  maple syrup.

In all, students made about 3 gallons of maple syrup. Consider that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Any bottled leftovers from the dinner will be sold to members of the Forest Area Community Schools. This year marks the first students ended the season with a pancake dinner.

The annual program, unique among Michigan school districts and wrapping up its third year, is a part of SEEDS EcoSchool, which promotes place-based learning opportunities in northern Michigan. Teaching staff prioritize hands-on and outdoor activities that develop leadership, life skills and resilience. 

How the program began: SEEDS EcoSchool brought back maple sugaring to the Kalkaska County school district, which used to be a staple of the curriculum in the eighties. A new sugar shack was built in the summer of 2020, and it’s where the students learn about maple sugaring after school. The sugar maples are located in a 30-acre forest owned by the school district. Students in grades four through eight participate in the seasonal program. 

How it works:
Programming is provided four days a week after the school day ends and six weeks in the summer. The program is free to enrolled students at Forest Area Middle School and Fife Lake Elementary School. Students measure trees to make sure the right size to tap and then mark the appropriate trees. They tap the trees, hang buckets and check every day for accumulated sap, and then empty the buckets for boiling. 

What it teaches: Throughout the season, students learn about botany, math, science, nutrition, local history and teamwork. “Maple sugaring teaches youth about a lot of different subjects,” says Joe Kreider, SEEDS EcoSchool site coordinator. “They use math by estimating sugar content and how much syrup they will get from their sap. They learn about the cultural significance of maple sugaring in the area. Of course, there is a lot of science, learning about why and how sap runs and the chemical reaction of boiling sap into syrup.”

“Making maple syrup is a really fun and hands-on way for students to learn about what makes their community special and to sneak some math and science in at the same time,” says Sandy Ehlers, SEEDS EcoSchool program director. 

What is SEEDS: SEEDS Ecology & Education Centers is a nonprofit organization that strives to implement local solutions to global issues at the intersection of ecology, education, and design. SEEDS work focuses on place-based activities that regenerate habitat, prevent carbon emissions, develop talent pipelines for green industries, and invest in the next generations. 

Resources: Funding from the Michigan Department of Education as part of the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Center program. Building the sugar shack was a partnership between the school, SEEDS Ecology and Education Center, the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative, the Great Lakes Energy People Fund, Traverse City Rotary Good Works, and the Grass River Natural Area, and Fife Lake community. 

What’s next: Organizers would like to add a chimney to the sugar shack so students can boil the sap inside. Currently, the building is used to store equipment and sap boiling is done outside, which is an issue under rainy conditions. Organizers also would like to build a pavilion to allow for an outdoor classroom year round. Kreider estimates the projects will cost at least $5,000.

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