Preston Hollow Elementary science teacher, Michelle Curtis: Photo by Rasy Ran

Preston Hollow Elementary science teacher, Michelle Curtis: Photo by Rasy Ran

Many elementary students in our neighborhood public schools have never seen a solar panel. So explaining renewable energy can be tough, says Michelle Curtis, who teaches fifth-grade science at Preston Hollow Elementary.

“That’s a hard thing to teach kids,” she says. “It’s hard for them to understand how powerful the sun is and how much energy we get from it. Once kids have hands-on, it means more to them.”

That’s why this year Curtis launched a solar car project, challenging her students to design and build model cars powered by the sun. Since the classroom budget doesn’t include funding for such a project, she applied for the Junior League of Dallas’ Grants for Innovative Teaching (GFIT) program, which awards Dallas ISD educators up to $2,000 for special projects.

“What’s great about this program is that there are very loose parameters. It’s only limited by the teachers’ imaginations.”

The grant program began in the early 1990s, and the Junior League raises around $100,000 annually with the help of a sponsor. This year Texas Instruments helped the league provide grants to 62 DISD teachers, pared down from 145 applications, including several in Preston Hollow and North Dallas.

“It’s a great way for teachers to go above and beyond in their classroom and get some extra support for those pet projects,” says Beth Lloyd, Junior League’s GFIT chair.

The projects address subjects including reading and literacy enrichment; diversity; special education; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); and arts and culture.

“What’s great about this program is that there are very loose parameters,” Lloyd says. “It’s only limited by the teachers’ imaginations.”

Curtis’ imagination ran wild after she learned about kits that provide all the parts and tools students need to build their own solar cars. The GFIT grant provided $1,958.60 to buy the kits. Curtis enjoyed seeing the girls get just as excited about the project, if not more, than the boys.

“My girls love it,” she says.

To increase the fun factor, the students built custom frames for their cars and raced them Kentucky Derby-style to celebrate Earth Day.

“We’re trying to gear them up to thinking clean,” Curtis says. “I’m teaching them the future.”


Several Preston Hollow-area teachers and their students benefited from the Junior League’s Grants for Innovative Teaching program this year. They include:

Thomas Jefferson High School: Chinese Chatter
Gail Perry bought headsets that allowed students in her Chinese language classes to access “Audacity,” a free open-source recording and editing software, to record verbal instruction and responses. The students heard and evaluated their own pronunciation and syntax.

Hillcrest High School: Cloning, Over-Expression, Purification and Crystallization of Master Regulators Involved in the Developmental Cascade of Pancreas Development
Dr. Ward Coats led 30 students in the Hillcrest Biomedical Research group in conducting research at the school and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The students studied the key regulator of pancreatic development and presented their research at the 2015 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology convention.

Hillcrest High School: It Really Bugs Me When
This yearlong senior research project allowed Diane Combs’ Engineering Design and Development students to develop an original solution to a common problem, working with a panel of local engineers. The presentations became part of the students’ portfolios as they applied for university programs.

Hillcrest High School: There is a Wetland in Dallas!
Theresa Oriabure led 11th- and 12th-grade students in learning how to become good stewards of the earth, traveling to the Bunker Sands Wetland Center to collect water samples and analyze their quality.

The deadline to apply for the 2015-16 Grants for Innovative Teaching program is 5 p.m. May 18. Visit

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