Upper Elementary Montessori Students Make Science Stick with Maple Syrup

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Throughout late winter on Inly’s campus, some puzzling contraptions greeted onlookers as they drove along Route 123. At first glance, they looked like faint white blobs next to the trees. Look more closely, and you might very well have asked yourself: Why are there tubes coming out of the trees and connecting to buckets?

Upper Elementary science teacher Jeff Klein had a simple answer: It’s maple syrup harvesting season in New England.

“This is what you do in New England in February,” said Klein. “We are always trying in our Montessori science curriculum to connect kids to the land and have them understand more of what is happening all around them.”

The students, with Klein’s assistance, learned the how to take ordinary sap from maple trees and turn it into delicious syrup. First, they researched which trees produced the best sap and how to identify those trees. Then they researched the correct steps to successfully gather that sap from the trees without damaging them.

Once they learned what needed to be done, it was time to put those new lessons into action.

The classes were broken up in to several groups of four or five students each, and the groups had to choose a tree to try and tap. The tree had to be the right species, the right size, and it had to be healthy enough to produce sap. Once they found a tree that worked, the students worked with Klein to drill a small hole and embed a hollow metal tap into the tree. That tap acted like a straw, and connected to a tube that led to a sap collecting bucket. What started out as a few unimpressive little drips turned into bucket after bucket of sap pouring out of the trees over the course of a few weeks.

While it may look like a large amount of sap to be taking out of a certain tree, Klein stressed that there is plenty of sap to go around to keep the tree alive and well.

“Each tree produces hundreds of gallons of sap to give the little buds on the ends of their branches enough sugar to get them through spring when the tree has enough leaves to make more. We’re jumping in to take a little bit of that sap,” said Klein. “Not enough to hurt the tree—that’s why we take careful measurements of how big each tree is before we tap it.”

After a few rounds of gathering the sap it was time for phase two of the process: boiling down the sap to make actual syrup. “Right now only 2 percent of what you see is actual sugar, pure sugar,” Klein said as he pointed to a large bucket of sap coming from the tree. “Maple syrup is about 67 percent sugar.” The process required the students to boil the sap in big vats on the stove. “Sap is mostly water, but if we boil it long enough, the water turns to steam and disappears in the air. The maple sugar part doesn’t go anywhere. At the end, all you have left is that sugar and a little water, and that’s maple syrup.”

Once the sap was captured and boiled down to syrup, the last step of the process could be realized. The students were asked to become “marketers” and come up with different names and labels for the maple syrup. The Upper Elementary students also had a chance to show off some of their knowledge to the students in Lower Elementary.

“It’s a team process,” said Colin M., an Upper Elementary student. “Everybody does their share and it all comes out really good.”

“There’s that connection to the land piece that is huge,” said Klein. “They have probably seen maple syrup operations. They have all had maple syrup, and now this is a chance to see how they are connected to the trees around them.”

But what would the collection of maple syrup be without a big pancake party at the end of the long process? The students created both a light and dark grade of maple syrup. Klein admitted that neither he nor the scientists who study the maple syrup fully understand why different trees produce different grades of syrup.

But that didn’t deter the students from enjoying it.

“It turned out good,” said Upper Elementary student Amelia A., who took a big bite of her pancake smothered in her homemade maple syrup. “Very good.”

To read more about the Inly science curriculum, check out their web site, Upper Elementary Science: Keepers of the Land.

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