A success, educationally and within the community, syrup-making facilitated instruction of a variety of skills and concepts: ecological literacy with respect to tree identification, physiology and chemistry; human and non-human uses of birch, in particular the marketability of Non-Timber Forest Products; understanding of traditional use, knowledge and technology inherent in making k’i tu (meaning birch-syrup or - water in Dene) and basic math concepts of volume, proportion and concentration, to name a few.
Before the 2004 sugar season, the local office of the Forest Service Division of GNWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) came forward with an offer of logistical and financial support for the High School’s birch syrup unit that transformed the activity into an ambitious and relatively sophisticated project. With the acquisition of large-volume syrup pails and lids, industry-standard spiles, a vastly more efficient evaporator and some basic diagnostic equipment, the project assumed a more scientific character. In addition to the town trees, a second, lower-lying stand of birch was tapped about 7km from the school. Now, comparisons could be drawn regarding start and end of sap runs, tree productivity and sugar content for each of the sites. What’s more, temperature-calibrated hydrometers allowed classes to monitor the distillation process and ultimately produce better, more consistent syrup. The school’s participation in a documentary project also brought together students and a long-time Dene syrup-maker to swap secrets and trade syrups.
Plans are being hatched to extend the birch project to Chief Sunrise Education Centre (CSEC), the Hay River Dene Reserve school. The K’atlo’deeche Traditional Knowledge School is a new program at CSEC - a sort of School-in-the-Bush - where traditional skills are used to teach for- credit curricular expectations. In this context, teaching about traditional use of birch sap and syrup will take on a whole new importance. It is also anticipated that sale of the student- generated product in Hay River and in Yellowknife will help raise funds for program trips and activities.
Profitability and even taste aside, birch syruping is an ideal learning activity for a number of reasons. It is hands-on, practical, low-cost, novel, and can serve as a portal into deeper ecological understandings and relationships. Drawing on skills and concepts from biology, chemistry, history, math and home economics it is an activity that could extend across the disciplines. Of course, not all students take away the same learning from a lesson. I can’t guarantee that all syrup students will grasp the concepts of relative density, active transport or even photosynthesis. But I can guarantee that each and every one can spot a birch from an aspen, which is a pretty good start, if you ask me.
For more information, contact:
Mike Mitchell Chief Sunrise Education Centre Katlo’ Deeche First Nations Hay River Reserve, NWT Michael_Mitchell@southslave.learnnet.nt.ca
Bea Lepine Extension Forester Forest Management ENR, GNWT Hay River, NWT firstname.lastname@example.org