May–June 2022


Tapping New Knowledge

Students from all over the world get a taste of Minnesota nature.

Julie Forster

Hamoud Aldhuhoori cranks a hand drill into the bark of a boxelder maple tree along Silver Creek in Rochester. Ana Laura Gutierrez tries her hand at it too. Then Milka Hassan steps in with a small tool to clear the hole of wood shavings. Hamoud uses a hammer to tap a hollow peg called a spile into the hole, and sap soon starts to drip. 

The 45 students visiting Quarry Hill Nature Center on this March morning are new to maple syruping and also to this part of the world. In kindergarten through fifth grade, they are all recent arrivals to the United States who attend a newcomer program at Rochester’s Riverside Central Elementary School. Today they are learning to tap trees for syrup through a Quarry Hill pilot program that immerses them in natural science during monthly themed outings to the nature center.

The program, “M is for Minnesota,” aims to give students a greater curiosity about the natural world and a sense of place in their new community. While the children’s cultures, first languages, and economic circumstances are as diverse as their personalities, nature is a common bond, says Pamela Meyer, executive director of Quarry Hill. “Nature has that ability to transcend some of those barriers, and that’s what makes this such a powerful place to welcome those kids and to build their language and their comfort in the outdoors.”
In December, the students learned about hibernation. They snowshoed and cross-country skied in February. In April, it’s bird banding during spring migration.

On this March morning, temperatures are warming and parts of the creek are flowing freely. Geese honk overhead as the students work in small groups tapping maple trees along a forest path muddy with melting snowpack.

Meyer shows students a wet branch and explains, using simple English and gestures, how the trees have been storing water and sugar in their roots all winter. Now they are starting to pull sap up into the trunk and branches. “Oh, look at the drip,” she says as children reach up to touch droplets of sap.

Hiking through the nature center grounds, the students stop at stations for activities. They laugh and shout out words and phrases in English as they react to their newfound knowledge.

These students have come here from Mexico, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and other places. Some are refugees. Some are immigrants. Some have family members with fellowships at Mayo Clinic. Others are Mayo patients or, like Hamoud, who is from the United Arab Emirates, have family members who are patients.

At morning’s end, Hamoud rates his experience. “It’s good,” he says with a smile, and later that day he tells his mom all the steps to tapping a Minnesota maple tree.