Sand Springs science teacher gets $18,000 grant for virtual reality classroom headsets

SAND SPRINGS — Sixth-grade science teacher Sandy Gilstrap answered a knock on her classroom door Tuesday morning with a level of excitement that would make even a Publishers Clearing House lottery winner envious.

Gilstrap’s own version of an “award patrol” filled the Sixth Grade Center hallway outside, with representatives from the Sand Springs Education Foundation, Sand Springs Public Schools officials and reporters to witness the presentation of the more than $18,000 grant, one of the largest the foundation has given to fund the learning system virtual reality for her classes.

Gilstrap immediately burst into tears and started jumping up and down.

“I got it?” she screamed. “I’m so excited!”

Gilstrap will use the $18,799.98 grant to purchase Class VR, a set of 30 virtual reality headsets that will allow a classroom full of students to go anywhere, do anything, see anything — virtually.

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“We’ll be able to not only look at cells, but also walk.” inside cells and do hands-on virtual dissections and all kinds of things we wouldn’t normally be able to do,” said Gilstrap, a Sand Springs Public Schools graduate who is in her 17th year teaching.

She said Class VR comes with a library of about 15,000 lessons in a dizzying array of subjects, a feature that will benefit not only Gilstrap’s students but others as well.

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“This is something that we can use not only for my class, but for all of us,” she said, adding that the curriculum “takes our learning to another level.”

And even to different places. Although school trips are more often a victim of education funding issues these days, with Class VR technology, students won’t stay in the classroom for long.

“With the click of a button, a teacher can send a lesson from the library (system) … so we can all go on a field trip or a dissection together,” Gilstrap said.

Even better, virtual reality allows students to take field trips to destinations the school bus can’t reach, such as the human body, making it abstractly imaginable.

“What a way to do something memorable and hang on to it,” said Gilstrap, who was the Sixth Grade Center teacher of the year last year and a finalist for district teacher of the year. “We can stand there and talk to them all day, but to really learn something, you have to do it — to really understand it.”

Teams from the Sand Springs Education Foundation fanned out across the school district Tuesday to present grant awards totaling $85,000 to 41 recipients, said Tirita Montross, the foundation’s executive director.

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The commission reviewed 50 applications that were submitted for the annual grants, which any teacher in the district can apply for, she said. The grants aren’t for furniture or building improvements, and aren’t really for day-to-day school supplies, Montross said.

“It has to be the kind of project” or something where “it’s going to last longer than just this year,” she said. “Usually it’s a special project that they wouldn’t be able to get through the district.”

The foundation first awarded grants in 1989 and has distributed more than $2 million since then. This year’s total of $85,000 is the second highest, just ahead of the record of $89,000.

Sand Springs Public Schools Superintendent Sherry Durkee said the money isn’t just for reading, writing and math.

“It’s an improvement. That’s what makes student engagement possible,” she said. “We teach the curriculum – there’s no doubt about it. But such improvements make a measurable difference in student engagement.”

“It’s about getting creativity into the classroom,” Durkee said. “And I really don’t know a profession that has more creative people than education. So they write pretty phenomenal grant applications.”

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