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 Tuesday morning with an excitement that even a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes winner would envy.

Gilstrap’s own version of an “award patrol” filled the outside hallway of the 6th grade center with representatives from the Sand Springs Education Foundation, Sand Springs Public Schools officials and reporters to witness the presentation of more than $18,000 in grants. The foundation’s largest amount to fund a virtual reality learning system for its classes.

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

– I got it? He 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 allow a classroom full of students to go anywhere, do anything, see anything — virtually.

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

He said Class VR has a library of about 15,000 lessons in a dizzying array of subjects, benefiting not only Gilstrap’s students but others as well.

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“It’s not just for my class, it’s for all of us,” she said, adding that the curriculum “takes our learning to another level.”

And even to a few different places. Although field trips are more often a victim of education funding issues these days, with Class VR technology, students are not stuck in the classroom.

“With the push of a button, the teacher can send a lesson out of the (system’s) library … so we can all go on a field trip or dissect together,” Gilstrap said.

Even better, virtual reality allows students to take field trips to places a school bus can’t reach, like inside the human body, making the abstract possible.

“What a way to make something memorable and sticky,” said Gilstrap, who was last year’s sixth-grade center teacher of the year and a finalist for the district’s teacher of the year award. “We can stand there and talk to them all day, but to learn something you have to do it—to really understand it.”

Sand Springs Education Foundation teams gathered across the school district Tuesday to award a total of $85,000 in scholarships to 41 recipients, said Tirita Montross, the foundation’s executive director.

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A committee judged the 50-year grant application, which any teacher in the district can apply for, he said. The grants aren’t for furniture or building renovations, and they aren’t really awarded for everyday school supplies, Montross said.

“It’s got to be some kind of project,” or something where “it’s going to last longer than it did this year,” he said. “It’s usually a special project that they wouldn’t be able to fund through the district.”

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

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

“This is an improvement. That’s what makes it possible to engage students,” he said. “We teach the curriculum – no doubt about it. But improvements like these make a measurable difference in student engagement.”

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

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