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Collecting maple sap for the production of maple syrup is the ideal project for any teacher looking to bring the classroom outdoors. "But I don't live in the North East" you say... Well guess what, neither do I! I work as a middle school science teacher in Winston-Salem NC and have had a very successful season with my students. Anyone can follow this plan, and nothing beats a lesson that ends in eating sugar out of a tree.

The educational lessons captured in this simple project include but are not limited to; weather observations and prediction, the water cycle, conduction, convection, pressure differences, ratios (sap to syrup), measurements, conversions, species identification... Just to name a few. I offered this project to a few students from each class as an option for their STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) project. I wanted all of my students to participate in some type of year long project and the collection of maple sap fit perfectly.

Students can also create a video journal of their experience. Here is the video that my students created:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgHBUdQjRN0

Step 1: Maple Syrup in the Classroom

Materials:

  • Maple trees (minimum 12 inch diameter)
  • cordless drill
  • 7/16" drill bit
  • spiles
  • hooks
  • buckets (metal or plastic)
  • lids for the buckets
  • heat source
  • big pot for boiling the sap
  • restaurant grade filter paper / coffee filter / clean felt (to strain out any particulates)
  • 5 gallon bucket (for transporting the sap)


I ordered all materials from www.tapmytrees.com. They were super helpful and I couldn't be happier with experience from start to finish. They sell a teaching kit that comes with everything you need (minus the trees!).

There are many different ways to collect and process the sap, but this instructable outlines the way I do it (which works for me). A quick search may turn up a method that works better for you (or your students). Make your students do the research!

Step 2: Tree Identification

In the Fall, when leaves were at peak foliage, I had students walk campus to identify the different types of trees. They used an iPad app called leaf snap to help them. The app wasn't that great, but it helped. They discovered we had sugar maples, black maples, and silver maples on campus.

One of the requirements for tapping a maple tree is that it must be at least 12 inches in diameter. Students used a flexible tape measure to discover the circumpherence. Once they knew the circumference, they got to do some math. The formula for calculating diameter of a circle when you know the circumference is:
Diameter = Circumference / Pi

A general rule of thumb for tapping trees is 12"-21" = 1 tap, 21"-27" = 2 taps,

The students then marked off the trees with rope. An additional recommendation is to create a tree map to help document different varieties on your campus.

Step 3: Tap Your Trees

When the weather is right, it's time to tap your trees. How do you know when the weather is right? When the night time temperatures drop below freezing and the daytime temperatures go above freezing. In more northern climates, this tends to happen in late winter or early spring. In Winston-Salem, we were able to start in early January. The science behind why the sap starts to flow has to do with differences in pressure between the trunk of the tree and the roots due to uneven heating.

To tap the tree:

  1. Pick a spot on the tree about 3 feet from the ground. A spot on the south side of the tree and above a big root seems to work well.
  2. Using the 7/16" drill bit, drill a hole at a slightly upward angle 2" - 2.5" deep. It's a good idea to mark off the desired depth mark on the bit with a piece of tape. The upward angle helps facilitate the flow of sap down the spile.
  3. Remove as many wood shavings as possible from the hole.
  4. Place the hook over the spile and gently tap the spile into the tree with a hammer.
  5. Add the bucket with the lid onto the hook.
  6. Sit back and watch the weather forecast.

Step 4: Collecting Sap

Depending on the temperature fluctuations, some days the buckets will be full and others... not so much. The sap can go bad so it must remain cool. I treat it like milk. If it's cold enough outside, I can just leave it the sap in the buckets on the tree. If the temps are heading into the 50's, I collect the sap and either boil it down in class or refrigerate it until I have a descent amount. I have a few 5 gallon buckets with lids that my students use to transfer the sap back to class.

Carrying full 5 gallon buckets can be tough for even the strongest 7th graders. I have created a team building exercise where my class breaks down into two even lines. The two students at the front of the line each put a hand on the handle of the bucket and carry the sap far as they are able/willing. When they are tired, they place the bucket gently on the ground and peel off to the back of the line to await their next turn. The next two pick up the bucket and the procession continues. It's sort of like a ruck walk.

The sap should be boiled before consumption, but I am a bit of a risk taker and enjoy drinking it straight from the bucket. To me, it tastes a bit like coconut water. It's slightly sweet... But pretty much it's just water. It's awesome to see the students try it for the first time and get so disappointed that it doesn't taste like syrup. Good things come to those who wait.

One of the neatest things we observed was that despite the cold temperatures, honeybees will find their way to the sap (We also keep bees on campus). Another interesting thing we noticed is that the amount of sap in a bucket varies greatly... even two buckets on the same tree can have completely different amounts of sap in the same 24 hour period.

Step 5: Making Syrup

First, understand you are preparing a food product and caution should be taken. All cooking utensils should be cleaned thoroughly beforehand to ensure sterilization. Due to the high sugar content, the sap is an optimal breeding ground for bacteria.

Next, understand that it takes a good bit of energy to boil all of your sap. This might be a good teachable moment for your students. The ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1. That means 40 gallons of sap will produce 1 gallon of syrup. I had my students answer this question as a warm up, "If I have 4 liters of sap, how many milliliters of syrup can I expect to obtain?" Then I show them a beaker with 100 mL of water. It's a significant difference. The end product, in my opinion, is well worth the energy spent.

Collecting sap at school has its advantages. We happen to have a very supportive kitchen staff who are willing to help us boil down the sap. They have a much more powerful range and giant pots to get the job done much more quickly than the hot plate in my science classroom. Plus, if you boil gallons and gallons of sap in class your students get to see and feel first hand what happens to the water vapor in the room (it's not always a good thing when your posters start falling off the walls and it feels like a rainforest).

Making syrup is is as easy as boiling water. No really, it is. The hardest part is when you get close to finishing. You could purchase a candy thermometer or a hydrometer to make sure it's perfect, but the spoon dip method works fine for me. When the syrup coats the apron of the spoon instead of running off like water, it's done. At this point, while the syrup is still hot, you will want to run it through some filter paper to remove any particulates. Once the syrup has been filtered, add the finished product to a clean bottle and store it in the fridge.

Step 6: Finished Product

I know it's tough, but don't forget to share your syrup. Make sure you let me know how it goes.

At at the end of the season, when the temps stay above freezing at night and the trees start budding, it's time to remove the spiles. Clean all materials thoroughly and save for next season. The tree will heal itself. There is no need to try to plug the hole. It's not a bad idea to give the tapped tree a break the following season. If tapping the tree every other season is not an option, drill the new hole over three inches and up or down five inches from the previous tap hole.

<p>does it have to be the south Side?</p>
<p>I grew up in Bergen County NJ and went to Oradell and then grad from NVRHS-Dem. I actually have several cousins who went to YOUR HS and I would very much like to FIND them--any chance you could contact me at jmloebel (at) Gmail dot com?????</p><p>Now I live in Salem NY on the NY/VT border---I can see VT from my front door. We produce a tremendous amount of syrup in this area. In the season we have several Maple Weekends and you can go have pancakes in several of the sap houses! OR you can go see other sap houses work---some have reverse osmosis systems--another teaching moment!--which takes out a LOT of the H2o and cuts down on the fuel needed. A lot of guys still use wood to boil but some use fuel oil--very expensive! Nothing smells better than maple boiling off with wood smoke---</p><p>I have not over-boiled but if it tastes good you should be fine! I have spilled some and yup it does smell! The darker the color the richer the flavor to a point---you can get small glass vials with the correct colors of the various &quot;Grades&quot; ---I would think the Maple Boards (or Ag and Markets) could help you find these. Our Maple producers have a large building at our County Fair and these sorts of things are always on display. They also do Maple Cotton Candy; Maple Cream; sugar, syrup. ice cream--the Fair is in August!---and have displays of older equipment. Maple milk shakes--yum! We only have a few &quot;cash crops&quot; here--Maple; dairy; potatoes--we grow almost all of the &quot;seed potatoes&quot; for the Western growers (those extra long McDonalds fries? Ours!) a few high-end boutique places like Flying Pig Farms--and oh yeah our biggest crop is just slightly---less illegal than it has been! LOL! Not a teaching moment--yet! </p><p>If your syrup happens to mold--it is not bad. Just skim off--or filter---the mold and bring to a boil. AS long as it gets to that temp it will kill off any molds. You can also freeze either the syrup or the sap for preservation and later use. Or you can &quot;can&quot; the sap but it's not really needed if you bottle at the right temp. I like the darker syrup--I find it has more flavor. </p><p>We boiled our first year in our house on the wood stove and finished it off on the kitchen stove--NOW we know why you don't do this! Steamed the finish right off my cabinets. When we moved here back in the early 80's there were still a lot of guys using horses or oxen in the sugar bush---some still do but very few. One of our maples won an award for the most sap produced! After the life of the tree the lumber is used for chopping blocks--see the price for the BOOS companies products!---furniture; flooring; sometimes this is called &quot;Rock Maple&quot;. </p><p>I would be happy to answer any questions I might be able to--or surely there are some actual maple producers here who can! </p>
<p>I live in the Great White North of NY State on the Vermont border and saw our first sap lines of the season today! BIG cause for celebration here altho I gather the farmer is not going to be able to start sugaring off this weekend---sigh. I have also tapped my own trees and guys---you do NOT want to boil this stuff up at home! Make a fire outside; place a STURDY frame for pots or pans--shallow pans are what is used to boil off the water here---involve your shop class and have them make you some!---and boil away. </p><p>Don't burn the syrup! </p><p>You can also tap OTHER trees than sugar maples---I am sure your students can look these up! I am pretty sure one is the BEECH tree. I think the FOXFIRE series has a section on this also. </p><p>Another thing you can have your students do is determine the GRADE of the syrup---sure there are on-line tutes on this! And there are maple councils in ALL North Eastern States that would be happy to help you. </p><p>Other uses for maple::: Maple cotton candy; maple butter; maple sugar (just keep boiling!) maple cream; maple water--yes unboiled maple sap bottled and for sale. Maple trees live about 75 years or so and then start to rot generally from the inside out--makes hollow spaces for wildlife or amazing furniture and flooring for humans. Calculate the board-feet in your trees! The current prices for lumber! How many species use them! (You might need a longer school year!) </p><p>My former home town in NJ thought they had a &quot;Get Rich Quick&quot; scheme when they planted thousands of &quot;sugar maples&quot;--and then they discovered--swamp maples all. So sad! </p>
Thanks for the extra ideas! This is supposed to be a year long project and you have definitely added enough activities to make it worth while. I was worried there wouldn't be enough to do in the Fall, but calculating lumber prices and how much the tree is worth... perfect activity. <br>What can be done if they syrup is slightly burned? We had two batches boil down a little too much and the room smelled like burned marshmallows. The finished product is still in the fridge and tastes delicious, but the color looks more like molasses. <br>I heard about tapping birch trees. I'll do a little research into tapping beech trees. I'll also have to have the kids see if we have any on our campus. Our school is right across the street from Wake Forest so I can ask for the use of their trees too. <br>I'm grew up in West Milford, NJ. Went to high school in Sparta. Taught in Summit and Cranford. Lived with my wife in Westfield, Morristown, and Bridgewater. Spent my summers working as a lifeguard in Barnegat Light on LBI. What school were you at that tried the &quot;get rich quick&quot; scheme? Sounds like typical tax dollars at work! Thanks again for the comment and awesome activities. Good luck this winter. <br>
<p>I grew up about 20 miles from WS and I remember tapping trees for syrup in 8th grade. :)</p>
Very cool. I have worked at 7 different middle schools, two of which were in NJ, and I had never considered tapping trees until this year when a Spanish teacher suggested it. I wonder if the school you were at is still doing it? Thanks for letting me know.
<p>Over the years I have had a few customers that tapped maples on the west coast here and made maple syrup, maple wine, and other things. One said that the best rice was cooked using maple sap instead of water, when the sap was flowing they cooked everything with the maple sap.</p>
That's a great idea. It can take so long to boil the sap that often times I have some just waiting around. Using the extra sap for cooking sounds delicious. Thanks for sharing!
Very nice, actually sitting here reading this at WFBMC in Winston. My grandfather had a sugar bush when I was young and living in northeast Ohio. This should be an excellent year too tap the trees.. Good luck..
<p>Hey neighbor! I'm over at Summit School if you couldn't tell by the pictures. I heard about discarding the ice off the top, but it seems that lately it's been so cold that I've had ice blocks in the bucket. Thanks for the comment.</p>
BTW you can also freeze separate the water from the sugar.. Keep pulling the ice from the top of a bucket left outside..This is a much slower process..

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Bio: I'm a middle school science teacher going on 15 years in the classroom. I've taught 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I'm constantly ... More »
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