FAIRFIELD — Students from two charter schools came together Wednesday to learn in a sugar shack in the latest example of how hands-on learning is replacing many traditional classroom lessons.
The MapleCroft Sugar Shack has an authentic Maine character, with rough wooden planks for walls and rooftop windows opened with a rope-and-pulley system to let out the clouds of steam rising from the large metal evaporator.
Two high schoolers from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley were acting as instructors for the day, explaining how the sap was pumped into the large evaporator, boiled, condensed and guided through channels, finally emerging as pure maple syrup on the other end.
About 25 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders from Cornville Regional Elementary School clustered around the evaporator, listening, asking questions and filling out the worksheets they had been given.
For both older and younger students, it was a hands-on learning experience.
The academy’s Charlie Pike, 15, of Madison, was teaching about maple syrup; but he was learning about how to speak publicly. Sometimes he passed on lessons in the form of stories.
Over the winter, a large batch of sap had frozen solid in a holding tank outside the shack, he told the students. He and a classmate had to chip away at the block of sap and pass chunks through a window into the shack, where it could be heated and processed.
“I’ll never let it freeze again,” he told them.
One of the younger students asked how they know when to stop taking sap from the trees.
“The best time to stop is when the trees start giving yellow sap,” he said. “You don’t want to use yellow sap.”
Jeff Chase, a science instructor for the academy, sometimes chimed in with technical knowledge, drawing the connection between the maple sugaring process and academics. As he put a thermometer into a metal cylinder filled with hot syrup, he pointed out the slight concave depression in the surface of the liquid.
“That’s a meniscus,” he said. “In science, when you’re measuring anything in a graduated cylinder, that curve is what you’re going to measure.”
After the lesson, Pike, who struggled in a traditional classroom environment before he came to the academy nearly two years ago, said he loved the school but that today’s challenge had been difficult, despite his having made maple sugar for most of his childhood.
“I’ve never had to explain it before,” Pike said after the lesson. “I never had to teach anything.”
And that’s the point, said Emanuel Pariser, director of curriculum at the academy.
“Having to present it means they have to integrate that information,” he said. “This is a good example of a perfect blend of knowledge. It’s got chemistry and history together with something real. This is way beyond a textbook. And no one would argue against the value of the end product, sweet maple syrup.”
The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences is a charter school opened in 2011 by Good Will-Hinckley, which operated a home for boys and girls at the same campus from 1889 until 2009, when financial problems forced it to close. About 600 acres of its original 2,400-acre campus were sold to Kennebec Valley Community College, which has launched a variety of academic programs built around the agricultural resources on the land.
The evaporator belongs to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, but the sugar shack itself belongs to KVCC, an example of how the two entities are working together as they feel out their new roles as neighbors.
The spectacle of Cornville students learning from academy students in a building owned by the community college also hints at an emerging educational infrastructure for students who love to learn outdoors.
Pariser said the academy, which has as many students as it can handle right now, is not targeting Cornville students specifically, but that the academy’s teaching strategies probably would appeal to them.
Seeing maple sugaring happen, as opposed to reading about it in a book, did seem to have made an impression.
Lydia Dore, 11, a fifth-grader at Cornville, said she enjoyed the trip to the academy, her second so far, and would like to attend it as a high school student.
Her favorite part of the day’s lesson was learning vocabulary words that weren’t likely to come up outside of the maple sugaring tradition.
“Like â€˜frogrun,’” she said. “It’s when you go to get the sap and you know it’s the last time because you can hear frogs are croaking in the woods.”