Report card: tapping into natural resources

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) — Ninth-graders at Burlington High School take an annual “spring break” after biology class, but they never let up on learning. Instead, each biology section is routed to the school forest, adjacent to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area, to harvest maple trees and make syrup.

“It’s a great opportunity for kids to experience science rather than just learn it,” says science teacher Greg Zeman.

Zeman started the maple project just in his classrooms, but it’s now expanded to include all ninth graders. The science department awards research projects on everything from the history of tapping maple trees in southern Wisconsin to the nutritional value of natural sugars versus supermarket brands. But the most important lesson might be patience.

“It must go below zero at night and above zero during the day,” says Zeman. “The change in temperature causes a pressure difference in the shaft.”

The changes in pressure cause the sap to rise in the trees, making them ready for tapping. Zeman says about 80 gallons of sap is collected and then boiled on a special stove with an evaporating dish. The stove is in the school yard so the student body can monitor progress.

Maple experts say it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, and a temperature of 219 degrees is needed to ensure the syrup has the right consistency. Zeman says that while producing maple syrup takes time, it’s hard to settle for anything less than the real thing.

“It’s mother nature’s glucose,” says Zeman. “In fact, when I go to a restaurant, I don’t even order pancakes or waffles because what they give you just isn’t the same.”

Zeman says it turned into a big project for the whole school, and it made a lasting impression with former students tapping their own trees and making syrup.

“My philosophy over the years of teaching is to try to apply what I teach…inside the walls here,” says Zeman. “How can you take what we learn [inside] and apply it to something outside.”

Zeman has taken on more scientific adventures, like taking students to Minnesota’s border waters. Another group went to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. This inspired Burlington students to pursue environmental studies after high school.

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