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Jason Jech helps Burnside second-graders drill holes in a box elder tree. The holes were later fitted with taps, plastic tubes and five-gallon buckets for the sap to drain into.

Maple tapping means spring is on its way

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Before the April showers and the May flowers, the sap starts running in the trees. It may not be as visible as tulips sprouting or puddles forming on the ground, but it's a sure sign that warmer weather is on its way.

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"It's a harbinger of spring. When you get the sap running, it's springtime," Red Wing Environmental Learning Center field instructor Brad Nagel said.

For Burnside second-graders, the running sap also means one of their first chances to get out of the classroom.

"After a long winter, it's a great opportunity to get outside," second-grade teacher Jody Sjoblom said.

For the past three years, ELC staff have been helping Burnside students tap box elder trees - a variety of maple tree - to make syrup.

"(The box elder) is a great tree to tap, and they produce a lot of sap," Nagel said.

Two weeks ago, the kids, along with Nagel and Jason Jech, ELC's executive director, suited up in their winter gear and tromped over the still snow-covered ground to a grove of trees just behind Burnside Elementary School.

With the help of Nagel and Jech, the students took turns using a hand drill to bore holes in box elder trunks. Then they pounded in a tap and attached a plastic hose, allowing the sap to collect in five-gallon buckets.

Wednesday, the students boiled that sap on a wood-burning stove to make their final product - maple syrup. Each tree can produce about 5 gallons of sap, Nagel said. While that may seem like a lot, once boiled down, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup.

The second-graders enjoyed their precious product over ice cream, Nagel said.

Branching out

But a sweet treat isn't the only thing the students get out of the project. Maple tapping has fit in well to what has been going on inside the classroom, Sjoblom said.

Second-grade curriculum requires that students know the life cycles and purposes of plants, Sjoblom said.

"We investigate the different plants and talk about the root system, photosynthesis, chlorophyll," she said. Before the students head out to the trees, Nagel said they get a lesson in tree structure and how the sap moves from the trunk to the buds and leaves.

"Some kids have to have that hands-on testimonial," Sjoblom said.

The tree-tapping project also gives students the opportunity to look beyond plants. "It's more than just tapping maple trees," Nagel said.

Once outside, Sjoblom's class went on a nature walk, talking about animal habitats, how animals spread seeds and how each eco-system relies on one another.

"It allows us to see how everything molds to each other ... how everything is interdependent," Sjoblom said.

Wednesday, while they boiled the sap, Nagel said he used the steam to explain the water cycle to the students. "We try to give them a broader view than just standing in the mud," he said.

"There's so much outside that you can teach kids," Sjoblom agreed. "Its nice to ... bring them outside and just let them explore and observe

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Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.
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