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Science and syrup: Maple lesson delights Mill Road students

Eliza Hedges and Casper Snider enjoy their syrup on plates after eating pancakes.Elementary students don’t always simply say when a lesson worked. Teachers have to follow clues and cues to know which resonated.

In Doug Keto’s case, the students asked for seconds on the pancakes.

“I take that as, essentially, good job,” he said.

The garden instructor for the Mill Road elementary schools this winter led the students in tapping maple trees and making syrup, as part of lessons in how trees work and the differences between processed and homegrown foods.

The reward at the end of the lesson were pancakes, which Keto made fresh on an electric griddle, topped with their syrup.

The remaining syrup – which this year is especially dark and robust with a crisp taste – will be sold as a fundraiser later this year, Keto said.

The lesson is one Keto revived last year, his first with the Red Hook Central School District, after it was taught for a handful of years over the last decade.

The trees Keto tapped stand outside of Mill Road Intermediate School. He brings the students outside and teaches them how to identify whether the trees are sugar maples – every class was able to go outside this year thanks to a mostly mild winter – but he handles the drilling and tapping.

Garden instructor Doug Keto explains to a class how to identify a sugar maple tree

The sap is collected through tubes threaded into closed five-gallon, food-safe buckets. Keto and his garden assistant then cooked it down during off-hours to create the final syrup product.

As the sap was roughly 97% water, it took about four hours to cook five gallons down to 16 ounces of syrup. About 168 gallons of sap was collected in all, which yielded roughly four gallons of syrup.

Keto said he hopes for next year to be able to either get an evaporator, permission to build a fire or a field trip to a sugar shack to show the students how the sap cooks.

“The most exciting part of maple syruping is seeing all that steam come off,” he said.

Sap was collected throughout February, with collection cut short by a couple of weeks due to the mild temperatures. This, though, was also an opportunity to educate the students on how temperatures impact sap production.

“You want below-freezing temperatures at night, above-freezing during the day,” Keto said, noting 25 degrees during the night and 40 during the day is ideal. “The freeze-thaw cycle pumps the sap through the tree. As it thaws, that pressure pushes the sap up the tree into the new buds it’s trying to produce. Once our nights are above freezing, then sap production kind of stops."

But, that also means it’s time to eat. Levi Minnow enjoys a pancake.

The Mill Road Primary students were brought outside to identify the trees and taste the sap before going back inside for pancakes. The Intermediate students had to work a little harder. Keto said there was first a lesson on the tree’s cambium layer and how it can move water up through the tree, using a long tube over a doorway to simulate the suction. Only then did he turn on the griddle.

“I had a couple parents, who actually work at the school, they said, ‘My kid came home, they never tell me about school. They said that you made pancakes and they were delicious,’” Keto recalled. “I think it went really well. I think they got it. They were asking great questions.”

Keto said he showed the students labels of popular store-bought syrups, which do not actually contain maple anymore, and did a taste test.

“Maybe 85-90% choose the real stuff. … That was rewarding,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do in the program is give them access to fresh produce, like fruits, veggies, nuts, foraged things, and products like syrup and eventually honey – when do they get to try real maple syrup, real honey?”