HAMPTON FALLS — What started on a hot plate in Jim Cutting’s classroom more than 25 years ago, grew into a maple sugaring tradition and one of the town's harbingers of spring.

Ask any one of the hundreds of residents who showed up to enjoy the sunshine and maple syrup at Lincoln Akerman School’s sugar shack last Saturday. Each has their own memories of the process that is a popular learning experience for fourth-graders at LAS every year. They came to eat a burger, taste some syrup and chat with former teachers, schoolmates or neighbors.

The refining of sugar maple tree sap into delectable pure maple syrup is one of New Hampshire’s sweetest industries, sought nationwide as one of the most authentic flavors of New England. Its laborious nature and limited supply drives up its cost, which as well as its color, is why many consider Granite State maple syrup “liquid gold.”

“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup,” said Scott Elzey, a volunteer who was keeping an eye as the sap boiled. “We come pretty much every year.”

Elzey’s wife, Collette, a first-grade teacher at LAS was also doing her part. Along with a few students, she was boiling the syrup down further, to the “hard ball stage,” and pouring the result into leaf-shaped molds to make maple candy.

Beside her, fourth-grader Megan Kelly explained the different grades of syrup to those waiting in line to sample the goods. All LAS syrup is considered Grade A, she said, with three distinctly different colors and tastes.

“There’s strong, rich and robust,” Kelly said. “Strong is in the middle. I like the strong flavor the best.”

Megan might be the most current fourth-grader to enjoy the maple sugar unit, but Patrick Kelley, holding 1-year-old daughter, Millie, was among the first.

“We really did start this in Jim Cutting’s classroom boiling the sap down to syrup on a hot plate,” Kelley said. “But after that, we built the Sugar Shack. They raised the money.”

According to Cutting, Kelly’s pretty much correct. Now in the unit’s 25th sugaring season, Cutting said it started decades ago while teaching the unit on New Hampshire history to his class of “very motivated and intuitive students.” The maple syrup industry is a big part of the state’s history, he said, and he got creative.

“We tapped five trees on school property the first year just to see what would happen,” Cutting said. “We made one gallon of syrup. The kids loved it; that’s where it’s at.”

But Cutting knew he couldn’t keep boiling sap into syrup on a hot plate in his classroom, or in the school kitchen for that matter. If the unit was going to grow so all fourth-graders could take part, LAS needed a sugar shack.

With School Board permission, Cutting, volunteers and students held a festival as a fundraiser, making $5,000. That was enough to buy the stainless steel equipment, he said, the rest came from the community.

“All the wood and windows of the shack were donated; all we paid for was the roof and the (concrete) floor,” he said.

Then parents, grandparents, residents and school staff volunteered time and expertise to raise the sugar shack behind the school.

“Everyone was behind it,” Cutting said.

With the shack, the number of trees tapped expanded, both on school grounds and private property through the cooperation of more generous residents. The children tap trees and gather sap. On maple sugaring weekend, the children watch as the sap gathered in a big tank slowly flows into a preheating tank, then through the baffles in the wood-fire heated boiling evaporator tank. When the temperature reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes maple syrup.

The unit encompasses all fourth-grade classrooms, currently taught by Barbara Cutting and Jess Bagley. Teachers from other disciplines got involved, he said, so students knew there’s more to the state’s historic maple sugaring industry “than putting a hole in a tree.”

According to sixth-graders Jenna Kelly and Elizabeth Medford, kids at LAS know the maple sugaring unit is coming in fourth grade, and everyone looks forward to it. And like the two girls and Patrick Kelley, many return year after year.

For LAS staffer David Schwab, after 11 years of watching this learning experience grow, the unit offers more than tasty results.

“Tell the kids the diameter of a maple tree, and they can figure out how many gallons of sap it can produce. That’s math,” he said. “The music teacher wrote a song about maple sugaring and taught it to the kids. In art class, the teacher had the kids make maple (leaf) shaped trivets. What impresses me the most is the way it’s incorporated into other disciplines in the school.”