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Sharing his roots

Gallatin elementary school’s flourishing ag education STEM program partners with Sumner Farmers Co-op on educational projects
Story and photos by: Allison Farley 4/24/2020


David Collins, Agriculture STEM Coordinator for Union Elementary STEM and Demonstration School in Gallatin, began his teaching journey in 1973. He decided early in his career that one of his goals would be to share his farming roots with students.
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In 2016, Union Elementary in Gallatin received STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) certification, one of only 34 schools worldwide at the time to hold the distinction.

At the time, many of the programs at Union Elementary STEM and Demonstration School were identified for their outstanding efforts. One of the areas receiving high praise was agriculture education, and most of the success of that program can be linked back to one man — David Collins.

David began his teaching journey in 1973 at Gallatin’s Vena Stuart Elementary School, where he taught kindergarten for 29 years.

He decided early in his career that one of his goals would be to share his farming roots with students, so the enthusiastic educator presented his administration with a plan for a school garden.

“We had been teaching the kids that plant life starts with a seed,” he says. “What better way for students to learn than letting them plant something and see it grow.”

The students loved the experience, and their enthusiasm inspired David to create another hands-on learning project — a Monarch Butterfly Launch.

The butterfly project was also well received and developed into an annual activity. The students learn about the life cycle of the colorful butterfly and its annual migration to its tropical roots.

“Monarch butterflies over-winter in Mexico,” he explains. “And in the spring, they start laying eggs on milkweed as they travel north. and in the spring, they start laying eggs on milkweed as they travel north. It will take four generations to migrate to Canada. In the fall, they return south and winter in Mexico.”

When Union Elementary transitioned to a year-round schedule in 2002, David seized the opportunity to expand both his garden and his butterfly projects by transferring to the schools.

The Monarch Butterfly Launch began with four caterpillars transforming into butterflies and has now become a community-wide event with the release of anywhere from 100 to 400 monarch butterflies each year.

The launch is now held at Triple Creek Park to accommodate a crowd that has grown too large for the school’s playground. In addition to the butterfly release, they celebrate by playing instruments, preforming interpretive movement, singing songs, and reading books and poems about monarchs for the audience.

Sumner Farmers Cooperative is a proud partner in the launch. The Co-op donates plants to the school’s butterfly garden, including milkweed to help attract the monarchs.

In addition to the work with the program, Sumner Farmers has sponsored the school’s broiler chicken project for the last two years by donating Co-op grower and finisher feed.

As a part of this project, Union’s students participate in the Middle Tennessee Junior Broiler Program (MTJBP) sponsored by MTSU School of Agriculture and Tyson Foods in Shelbyville. The students spend six weeks raising and learning about the broiler chickens and then take their 3 best broilers to the MTJBP Show in Shelbyville. In 2019, two Union students made it to the show’s top 5 overall in the junior division.

The school maintains a chicken coop with a growing flock of 18 hens, which are fed Co-op Natural Layer Pellet (#114PE) that Collins picks up from the Co-op. Union donates the brown eggs from the school flock to Gallatin Cares food bank.

Although he is appreciative of all the help from Sumner Farmer Co-op, David says he’s especially thankful for their partnership with the school’s garden. From the beginning, the veteran educator says, the Co-op donated seed to get the project started and continues to provide plants and greenhouse supplies.

“Union has become a great place for us to bring tray plants that need some extra love and attention,” says Sumner Farmers Co-op’s Shannon Lancaster. “Every year, we also end up with a handful of mystery plants in the garden center because kids love to pull the name tags from the plants’ containers, but Union has been able to use them in their garden.”

In 2018, David’s fellow teachers and former students nominated him for the National Life Group’s LifeChanger Award, which is given annually to a K-12 teacher who shows leadership and makes a positive impact in the lives of students and the community.

David was chosen as LifeChanger Spirit Award winner from a group of 825 worthy educators from across the country. He received a $2,500 cash prize, and an additional $2,500 to share with the school. In recognition of David’s accomplishments, the school has renamed their agriculture STEM center in his honor.

Following quadruple bypass surgery in the fall of 2017, David was diagnosed with colon cancer. Since the diagnosis and after 45 years in the classroom, he has transitioned from teaching to serving as the school’s Agriculture STEM Coordinator, which allows him to still see every student in the school at least once every 6 weeks.

“I didn’t start these projects to make a name for myself or the school,” he says. “I simply wanted to share my agricultural roots with students — about being raised on a farm — with students who didn’t have that experience. I just began quietly incorporating it in my teaching, and here we are.”

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