Sweet science

West Side Elementary students receive hands-on experience in learning how maple syrup is made

Photos by Deb Gau Bart Johnson held a tap steady while Blanca Chile-Chavez helped hammer it in. Fourth-grade students at West Side Elementary have been learning about how maple syrup is made, and on Friday Bart and Kaia Johnson helped the kids get some hands-on experience in tapping maple trees near the school and the Marshall National Guard Armory. Below, two groups of students helped set up a total of three taps. First, Johnson drilled a small hole in the tree trunks, and then students hammered in spouts to collect the sap.

MARSHALL — Making maple syrup all starts with finding the right tree. And as fourth graders from West Side Elementary gathered around the trunk of a tree on school grounds, Bart Johnson quizzed the students on how they could tell it was a maple.

“The bark goes up-and-down, and not side-to-side,” one student said, pointing out the flaky ridges of bark running vertically along the tree trunk. The kids were able to point out other characteristics, like the reddish color of the tree branches where they were forming buds.

This spring, West Side fourth graders have been learning about making syrup with some help from Kaia and Bart Johnson. On Friday, they got a chance to put what they’ve learned into action. After measuring that the trunks were big enough to tap, Johnson helped students hammer a total of three taps into maple trees near the school and the National Guard Armory.

“The hammer was heavy,” said Haneefa Hassan, one of several students who volunteered to hammer in the taps. But aside from that, it wasn’t too tricky, kids said. “It was pretty easy,” said Morgan Rokeh.

Once the taps were set up, all that was left to do was wait for the sap to run. The kids said they’re looking forward to what happens next.

“We get to try the syrup,” one student said.

The Johnsons have been tapping maple trees to make their own syrup for the past four years.

“It started with one tree in our back yard,” Bart Johnson said. Then last year, he noticed a maple tree in front of the West Side school building, and thought there could be a learning opportunity.

“I took it one step further and looked into the science standards that the fourth graders have,” Kaia Johnson said. A lot of them lined up perfectly with the steps needed to make maple syrup. “Some of the standards are learning about the different states of matter, understanding evaporation, measuring volumes, and graphing data.”

The Johnsons got permission to tap one maple on school grounds, and one on the Armory property.

Kaia Johnson said students prepared for the syrup project by watching videos and talking about the science behind gathering maple sap and making it into syrup. Then, Bart Johnson drilled small holes in maple tree trunks outside the school, and helped students hammer in the taps and set up buckets to collect the sap that drips out.

Students will be recording the temperature each day, and comparing it with the amount of sap gathered, Kaia Johnson said. Early spring weather, with cold nights and warm days, tends to be the best for collecting maple sap. Later, the Johnsons will help them make syrup out of the sap.

“In a few weeks students will be able to taste and see the sap and syrup at different points in the evaporation and boiling process,” she said.


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