If you visited White Lake School in White Lake, Wisconsin, during the winter, you might come across a group of students pounding pegs into three sugar maples on the front lawn. The trees are massive, over 100 years old, and they’re home to an intriguing school project: syrup tapping.
Fourth grade teacher Jonathan Wood has been leading sap projects for students in rural Wisconsin classrooms for nearly 20 years. This year, Wood’s class collected 30 gallons of sap over a three week period.
“My favorite part about collecting sap is that we got to do it,” said one fourth grader. “The students were in charge of it.”
The students are split into three groups, one for each tree. They first pound pegs, called spiles, into the trees to access the sap, then attach collection bags to the trees for the sap to drip into. This initial step is the most exciting one for students, according to Wood, because it provides the first opportunity to taste the sap. Once the bags are attached, the students check on them each day to measure and empty the contents.
Wood takes this sap home to add it to the sap he personally collects. He boils it and, once enough water evaporates, comes away with syrup. After jarring it, the syrup is returned to the students to eat in class with ice cream and take home.
“It tastes smoky, and if you make it yourself it just tastes better!” said one student.
Tapping maple trees has a long history in North America; first practiced in Indigenous communities and later taken and commercialized by white settlers. Sugar maple trees have the highest sugar content among all maples and are most commonly used in commercial operations, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Trees must be at least 10 inches in diameter to extract sap from and cannot be on public lands.
Wood’s superintendent supports the idea of tapping more maples in the school’s forest to make it a schoolwide operation next year.
“[My] hope is that at least some of the students will pursue this hobby in the future,” Wood said.