Crestwood science teacher takes new approach to education — one bucket of tapped sap at a time

Going beyond the traditional textbook approach to learning, one Crestwood Secondary School educator is teaching his students in an engaging way that takes theory to practice outdoors — one bucket of tapped sap at a time.

Jim Mulder, who has taught at the Sherbrooke Street high school for 28 years, is running a new program for his Grade 9 science class: harvesting sap and turning it into maple syrup.

Mulder, who teaches science through Grades 9 to 12, launched the project last month after getting the green light from the school’s principal, David Boone, who supported the veteran teacher’s outside-the-box idea. Mulder credits him with getting the initiative off the ground.

Throughout each week, Mulder brings his class — a group of a dozen students — to the woods beside the school. The area is located on farmland owned by a local family — including members who Mulder taught years ago — who approved the educator’s project, allowing him to use the land.

Mulder grew up on a farm in Owen Sound, where he often harvested maple syrup.

“I was looking for something that would challenge the kids and would connect with everyone’s lives,” he said, adding that the project allowed him to revisit his passion while exposing his students to the process of harvesting sap before eventually turning it into fresh maple syrup.

With buckets in hand, Mulder’s students learned how to identify maple trees and each picked their own tree. From there, using a variety of tools, he began demonstrating how to drill holes into trees and extract sap.

Once the sap is collected, Mulder has his students bring the haul back to the school grounds, where it’s brought to a garage.

Using a propane boiler, the sap is boiled down to its sugar content.

“The sap content is only about two-and-a-half per cent sugar when it’s out of the tree and then there’s about a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup. So if you want one litre of syrup you have to boil off 40 litres of water,” Mulder explained.

“It’s labour intensive but it’s fun.”

Mulder does most of the boiling for safety reasons as the students watch and learn the process.

While Mulder’s project isn’t specifically part of the curriculum, the class gives him the freedom to interpret it and explore different ways of teaching outside of a classroom setting.

“I’m not tied to the curriculum as the regular classroom is but it falls under science so I can sort of meld the maple syrup into learning about ecology and trees,” he said. “I have the flexibility with this class to come up with things on my own.”

“It’s a locally developed class. It’s students who have been struggling with academics. It’s a specialized program for kids who have struggled in the past with education so this is an opportunity for them to work on a lot of skills while exposing them to different ideas and that’s sort of how I have the freedom to do the maple syrup,” Mulder said.

“It’s about working on their environmental skills; their responsibility skills.”

Mulder and his students have been putting the finished product to good use.

During the school’s recent Pancake Tuesday festivities, the class teamed up with a learning and life skills class, doling out their maple syrup for the students’ pancakes.

Before the March break started, Mulder bottled the maple syrup and gave it out to his students so they could bring it home during their time off.

One student expressed her excitement about taking the syrup home to her grandmother, once an avid maple syrup harvester who hadn’t made any herself in years.

“The student was just thrilled to get some to bring home to her grandma and show her what she’d made. So the kids have been very excited about it,” Mulder said.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the project has been a welcomed exercise for students who’ve been cooped up at home, he said.

“Giving them something they can see and then identify with and just get their hands on, it just makes it real to them.”

The outdoor lessons tie in with his overall approach to educating youth.

“My belief is, you’ve got to make the curriculum come alive and then students can really integrate it into their personal lives. If they can see it, then it makes more sense to them rather than just looking at it in a textbook, which doesn’t really make a lasting impression on their mind. But if you can get them out there and they can see the bucket, touch the tree, taste the sap and the syrup — it sticks with them.”

Mulder plans on retiring next year, but said he hopes the outdoor program will continue. He even wants to volunteer to help out with the harvesting post-retirement.

Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner