Salamanders and sap were the stars of Wednesday's expedition to the Superior School Forest. Second grade students from Four Corners Elementary School spent the day engaged in a host of activities, from "I spy" and creating animal footprints to team tic-tac-toe.
"I think it's great," said Mark Locken, who traveled to the forest with his son Tanner, 8. "It's just the best experience for them."
Parents enjoyed the outing too.
"You spend time with the kids and they get to learn," said Ed Gallagher, who was with his daughter, Addyson. "She doesn't do much sapping, so she gets to learn that process, and she made her animal prints."
An aquarium full of small, spotted salamanders, prompted excitement and a few giggles from the kids.
"They look like snakes."
"Are they slimey?"
"Can I hold one?"
"These are all very good questions," said Lori Danz, school forest coordinator. "You could have written my lesson for me."
Students learned that young salamanders look much like frog tadpoles in their early stages. They are some of the earliest amphibians to come out of hibernation in the spring, headed toward wetlands and bodies of water to lay their eggs.
Other activities included team-building exercises and a chance to collect sap.
This is the first year maple sap has been collected in the school forest. Northland Program science teacher John Kedrowski wrote a grant to purchase the equipment, from spigots and plastic collection bags to boilers.
High school students in the district's Northland Program, which serves students at risk of not graduating, are taking the lead in the project. They tapped 36 of the forest's maple trees, and have gathered about 35 gallons of sap.
"It's a more practical, hands-on learning," Kedrowski said of this experiential education. "They get a better idea why it's important to learn science."
It's been a boon for younger students flocking to the forest, as well.
"It was really fun getting maple syrup," said second grader Olivia Kunert. "It's not syrup yet."
The students examined the process with myriad senses Wednesday. They touched maple bark and learned how its dark gray, bumpy texture differed from the bark on nearby popple trees. They dipped in a finger for a taste of the sap. They observed how clear and watery it looked and took a sniff. They also reacted to the bugs, moths and occasional spider in the bags.
Next week, the sap will be drained and boiled, yielding one gallon of maple syrup for every 40 gallons of sap. Kedrowski said their goal is to produce enough for every Northland Program student to take some syrup home.
"We had quite a few groups last week and this week who have never really seen this process," Danz said. "It changes their perception of what sap is and what we have to do to change it into syrup."
Even Four Corners students are benefitting, as their school's annual maple sap collection didn't take place this spring.
"It's such a fun lesson to teach that our goal next year is those high school kids, this has to be their whole thing," Danz said. "Next year, if all go well, they will be the ones teaching that maple syrup lesson."
The maple syrup program is helping reconnect Northland students to nature and providing them with a practical education, Kedrowski said.
"They're constantly asking us 'When is our next trip?' "When are we going?' he said. "They love being out here."
Through wreath sales in the winter and maple syrup sales in the spring, Kedrowski hopes to make this a self-sustaining program. He said they plan to take additional field trips to the site to maintain trails and ready the forest area for younger visitors. Students in the Northland Program can learn a lot through the forest connection.
"It's teaching a positive work ethic to a lot of these students," Kedrowski said. It's a lesson in stewardship, science and teaching by example.