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Overbrook students tapping trees for maple syrup
Posted 01/19/2017 02:37PM

Overbrook fourth-graders spent time this fall studying tree classifications and then put their knowledge to work identifying sugar maples on campus that they are now tapping for sap and turning into maple syrup.

Before the Christmas break, the students began studying weather so that they can follow temperatures and conditions when they return in January to know when the trees are ready to be tapped.

“This makes learning real,” said Sister Jane Michael, O.P., who teaches fourth-grade science.  “They can transfer this knowledge. For example, in math on the test we took recently there was a question about diameter. One of the students asked me about it and I said, ‘Remember what we did when we went outside and measured the diameter of the trees?’”

This year-long lesson is a STEM project, which is curriculum “based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach,” according to LiveScience. It began in the classroom as students studied classification in science and measurements in math. The lesson then moved outside on the 83-acre Dominican Campus.

“We had to determine how big a tree has to be to be able to collect sap and then measure the diameter as well as classify all of the maple trees to find the sugar maples,” Sister explained.

Students looked at the leaves and bark to find the trees on campus that would fit into their lesson. Trees needed to be at least 12 inches in diameter for one tap or up to 27 inches for three taps for one tree, Sister said.  The students found 19 sugar maple trees they can tap. There is the possibility for up to 50 taps in those trees, but they will limit it to 30 taps this winter.

“They did their research,” Sister said of her students. “They could identify the trees and tell me why it wasn’t the right tree and then find the right trees.”

They also used their recess time voluntarily to finish their tagging when the lesson ran over class time, she added.

“We’re now studying the weather so we can figure out the right time to tap the trees,” Sister said. She explained that the conditions need to have a night of freezing or below freezing temperatures followed by a day with temperatures in the low 40’s. Those conditions allow the sap to run.

“So we’ll have to track the weather when we return from Christmas break,” she said.

The project pulled in more mathematic calculations because students had to determine how much sap they will need to make syrup once the taps are flowing.

“We know that every 40 gallons of sap boils down to one gallon of syrup,” she said. “We had to look at volume and do a ton of math conversions to figure out what we will be able to get.”

After the winter tapping, the students will start boiling down the sap in early spring to make the syrup. Parents have gotten involved as volunteers who will do the boiling work. Fourth-grade families have also signed up to come to campus on Sundays to collect sap when the time is right.

Sister Joanna Marie, O.P., is the fourth-grade English and social studies teacher. She is helping out with the project as students will write about their experience this year. They have also studied Native Americans, who figured out how to use sap to make syrup. Sister Joanna Marie said she’d love to have a day this spring where they devote the entire day to this project.

“This is such a great campus to do this project because we have so many trees,” Sister said.

Principal Sister Julia Marie, O.P., said the STEM lessons happening across all the grade levels at Overbrook not only give students active, hands-on learning but those lessons carry over to stimulate students throughout their school experience.

“When students have learned through a STEM project using their senses and experiencing hands-on lessons, then they are better able to connect to more traditional methods of learning such as lectures,” Sister Julia Marie explained. “So, for example, having learned all these facts about trees using math, science and even history, if the fourth-graders were to sit through a lecture on plant identification or measurement they would be more excited by the facts because of the real-life exposure they’ve had to the subject area.”

“It’s a really exciting way to learn,” she said.


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