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CHESTER — Students in Chester Elementary School spent part of February and March tapping maple trees on school property and making maple syrup over a wood fire from the sap they collected.

“We tapped the trees right on the school property, some on the front property area and some in the wooded area behind the schools — 13 trees total. There’s a few more on the property,” said science, technology, engineering, art and math teacher Rebecca Nicholson, who added that every student in kindergarten through grade 5 takes the STEAM special class twice a week.

Nicholson, who is new to the Gateway Regional School District, said it was her first time making maple syrup, although the school did it for the first time last year: “It was a learning process for both me and the students.”

Student Fallyn Brady, teacher Rebecca Nicholson and student Tucker Robitaille add sap to the maple syrup as it cooks down.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

She said in the fall, the students identified the trees before the leaves dropped, and after February vacation, they started tapping.  They took the buckets in during the last week of February, and boiled the syrup on March 8.

“Students in grades 2-5 went outside during STEAM on Feb. 26 to assist with the tree tapping process. For the next two weeks until March 8, students helped to collect the sap and our fabulous cafeteria staff was able to make room in the school’s cafeteria freezer to store the sap so it would stay fresh. We collected about 15 gallons of sap in those two weeks. The students were so excited each day to see how much sap was collected,” she said, adding, “On the colder days we did not get much, but there were some very sunny and warm days and the students were amazed at how much sap came out of one tree.”

“We boiled on a fire within the school yard. We called the Fire Department and got clearance to have a fire there.” Nicholson said they used “a do-it-yourself setup with cinder blocks to create a fire box; a structure that can hold the pans over the fire.”

“We boiled from the start of school to the end of school. Each class was able to come out and make some preparations. Once most of it was boiled down, we transferred it over to a stove,” she said.

In the end, the school had two bottles full — one for the display case, and one that was split among the students the following class day.

“We boiled on Friday, and on Monday everybody got a tasting of it,” Nicholson said. “It was really good. One of the students, her family does maple syrup-making to sell. She informed me that we made golden syrup. The kids thought it was really good and tasted really sweet.”

The students helped through the whole process: third to fifth grade helped to tap, and second to fifth grade collected the jugs of sap.  Nicholson said they tracked how much sap they got.

“Maple syrup is one of the favorite projects here at STEAM — all the kids were asking me at the beginning of the year if we were going to do it again. It’s something they look forward to and every grade gets to take part,” Nicholson said. “A lot of families do it at home — others have never done it before. It was a great project to learn from each other, and learn the science of it. It was a new experience for me, but I really enjoyed learning about it.”

She said the whole community helped with the project. Teachers and community members donated the firewood, cafeteria staff stored the sap, and many school staff members, including the custodian who makes it at home, shared their syrup-making expertise.

“It was a nice way for everyone to play a part in it,” Nicholson said. “It was an amazing experience for everyone involved and a tradition that we can’t wait to continue at Chester Elementary School.”

The maple syrup project was one in a series of hands-on agricultural projects at the rural school, noted school Principal Vanna Maffuccio.

“I am relentlessly and passionately committed to providing our students with rich, relevant educational experiences centered in agricultural learning; I’ve been intentional about communicating and upholding this goal, as well as allocating resources, pinpointing teacher training opportunities, and forming strong partnerships that have now enabled us to weave agricultural learning, and projects such as this one, into our students’ everyday life at Chester Elementary School,” said Maffuccio.

Other recent projects have included growing hydroponic greens and cucumbers in the school, which ended up in students’ lunches in collaboration with Food Services Director Tasha Hartley and her staff. Earlier in the year, the school also partnered with Robert Perry, a farmer from Marsy Belle Farm in Blandford, on a microgreens planting project experience that included a visit to the farm.

“In less than two short years, agricultural learning has become ingrained in the culture of our school and is now a large part of our school’s identity. As the principal of Chester Elementary School, this is the accomplishment I am most proud of,” Maffuccio said.

amyporter@thewestfieldnews.com | + posts