SAND SPRINGS — Sixth-grade science teacher Sandy Gilstrap answered the knock on her classroom door Tuesday morning with a degree of excitement that even a winner of the Publishers Clearing House contest would envy.
Gilstrap’s own version of a “prize patrol” filled the Sixth Grade Center hallway outside, with representatives from the Sand Springs Education Foundation, Sand Springs Public Schools officials and reporters on hand to attend the presentation of a grant of over $18,000, one of the largest the foundation has given, to fund a virtual reality learning system for its courses.
Gilstrap instantly burst into tears and began to jump up and down.
“Did I understand?” 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 will not only be able to look at the cells, but, like, go on the inside cells and doing hands-on virtual dissections and all kinds of things that we wouldn’t normally be able to do,” said Gilstrap, a former Sand Springs Public Schools student who is in her 17th year of teaching.
She said Class VR comes with a library of around 15,000 lessons in a dizzying array of subjects, a feature that will benefit not just Gilstrap students, but others as well.
“It’s something not just for my class but for all of us to use,” she said, adding that the program “will take our learning to a different level.”
And even in some different places. Although field trips to class are more often the victim of education funding issues these days, with Class VR technology, students won’t be stuck in the classroom.
“With the click of a button, a teacher can send a lesson from the (system’s) library…so we can all go on a field trip or do a dissection together,” Gilstrap said.
Even better, virtual reality lets students take field trips to places no school bus can reach, like the inside of the human body, making the abstract imaginable.
“What a way to make something memorable and stick,” said Gilstrap, who was the teacher of the year for the sixth-grade center last year and a finalist for the district’s teacher of the year. “We can sit 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 on Tuesday to deliver grants totaling some $85,000 to 41 recipients, said Tirita Montross, the foundation’s executive director.
A committee reviewed the 50 applications 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, nor are they really given for day-to-day school supplies, Montross said.
“It has to be some kind of project” or something where “it’s going to last beyond this year,” she said. “It’s usually a special project that they couldn’t get funding through the district.”
The foundation first made 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 high of $89,000.
Sand Springs Public Schools Superintendent Sherry Durkee said the money isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic.
“It’s an improvement. This is what makes student engagement possible,” she said. “We teach the program — there’s no doubt about it. But such improvements make a measurable difference in student engagement.
“It’s about bringing creativity into the classroom,” Durkee said. “And I really don’t know of a profession that has more creative people than education. So they write some pretty phenomenal grant applications.