Students learn the art of sugaring and more

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

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

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

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

How the program started: SEEDS EcoSchool brought maple sugar back to the Kalkaska County school district, which was a staple of the curriculum in the 1980’s. A new sugar shack was built in the summer of 2020 where students will learn about maple sugar 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:
The program is offered four days a week after school 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 ensure they are the correct size for tapping, then mark appropriate trees. They tap the trees, hang buckets and check every day for accumulated sap, then empty the buckets to cook.

What it teaches: Throughout the season, students learn about botany, math, science, nutrition, local history and teamwork. “Maple Sugaring teaches youngsters many different subjects,” says Joe Kreider, SEEDS EcoSchool site coordinator. “They use math, estimating the sugar content and how much syrup they get out of their juice. You’ll learn about the cultural significance of maple sugaring in the region. Of course there is a lot of science involved in learning why and how sap flows and the chemical reaction of boiling sap to syrup.”

“Making maple syrup is a really fun and hands-on way for students to learn about what makes their community special while sneaking in some math and science,” says Sandy Ehlers, SEEDS EcoSchool Program Director.

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

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

What’s next: The organizers want to add a chimney to the sugar shack so the students can cook the juice in it. Currently, the building is used to store equipment and juice cooking is done outside, which is a problem when it rains. The organizers also want to build a pavilion to allow for an outdoor classroom all year round. Kreider estimates the projects will cost at least $5,000.

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