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Experiential learning tastes sweet at Bishop’s U

Students design unique mobile maple syrup production unit.


Starting this year, maple syrup-making will be on the move at Bishop’s University, thanks to a student-built mobile production unit. The modified trailer was constructed by four students participating in an experiential learning course in Bishop’s sustainable agriculture and food systems program.

The program often incorporates projects with the university’s educational farm, a swath of land that includes several maple trees. Over the last few years, students have extracted sap, but had to cultivate it off campus due to lack of equipment and space. When the experiential learning course needed a new project, building something to address that need was a natural step, said Bruno Courtemanche, faculty supervisor for the four students who built the unit.

“Everybody arrived at the same idea of doing something mobile,” he said, although the school plans to eventually build a permanent structure.

Students used 3D-modelling software for the design, which none of them previously had experience with. With Mr. Courtemanche there to collaborate and not lecture, the group had to pivot and learn on the spot. “The only criteria we had was to build a maple syrup production camp that’s on a trailer,” said student Gabrielle Bourbeau. “We all had different backgrounds, different opinions, different priorities.”

Overall, Ms. Bourbeau described the overall experience as very gratifying. “It’s something I’m a lot more proud of than what I would do in a classroom.”

While he’s not an expert in maple syrup production, Mr. Courtemanche said he’s interested in sustainable design and was impressed with what the students sourced, like old electrical poles for the siding. Ms. Bourbeau also brought in a sustainable design perspective, helping gather materials from around campus, like old doors and leftover paint.

Mobile syrup unit.
The mobile maple syrup unit, which measures 7 by 10 feet. Photo courtesy of Bishop’s University.

With Mr. Courtemanche there to collaborate and not lecture, the group had to pivot and learn on the spot. “With an experiential learning project, you don’t know what you need to know until you’re in the middle of it,” Ms. Bourbeau said. “We would start building things and then someone would say, ‘What are the rules around that?’ or ‘What are the safety rules?’ And we’d have to backtrack.”

When spring comes and it’s time to tap the trees, the group is hoping to take the unit on a mini tour, both on campus and to the nearby community of Lennoxville, Que. Mr. Courtemanche said he’s excited to see how the public interacts with it, given that it’s usually difficult to get an inside view of how maple syrup – an iconic Canadian symbol – is made. “Even when we go to a syrup production place to eat or visit, we usually see the process off to the side,” he said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see that aspect of the community outreach in the spring.”

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