For Physics Teacher, Experiments in Learning

Meyer award winner Bill Willis likes to use dramatic experiments to motivate students.
Meyer award winner Bill Willis likes to use dramatic experiments to motivate students. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

In his eternal quest to demystify the nuanced wonders of physics for his students at Gar-Field Senior High School, Bill Willis, 65, has conducted a number of experiments that educate as well as entertain.

Once, he built a hovercraft from a leaf blower and cushion so he could demonstrate Newton's laws of motion. Another time, he lay on a bed of about 1,000 upright nails to show how weight distribution can affect pressure. And, on other occasions, he has swung a bowling ball hanging from the ceiling at his face to show how kinetic energy cannot surpass potential energy.

(Not to worry; Willis's face remains intact.)

It is that kind of enthusiasm and confidence that helped Willis, a retired Army veteran turned teacher, win the 2006 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award from The Washington Post. He is one of three public school teachers in the Prince William area to win the prestigious award. Holly Dufrene, a teacher at Baldwin Elementary School in Manassas, and Deborah Denk, a language arts teacher at Manassas Park Middle School, also won.

Every year, 19 school districts in the D.C. area pick their best teachers through a nomination process, and the winner receives $3,000. One award is also given to a teacher from a private school in the area. The prize is named after Agnes Meyer, an educator who was the wife of Eugene Meyer, former owner and publisher of The Washington Post.

Willis's win continues something of a recent dominance by Gar-Field Senior High School in the newspaper's contest. He is the school's third teacher -- and second in a row -- to be named a Prince William awardee in the last four years. Last year, chemistry teacher Michael Ahern was selected, and in 2003, science teacher Brian Bassett won.

"Physics is a little dry and when you can add humor, it increases the interest of students to love the subject," said Gar-Field assistant principal Barbara Cavalier, who helped nominate Willis. "His job is an extremely hard teaching position to fill. A lot of people who go into teaching that are as brilliant as he is don't teach for the money."

For Willis, whose career in the Army took him through combat in Vietnam and weapons-design research, teaching students was a natural extension of his days in the military.

Willis grew up as an Air Force brat, attending school in France, before coming back to the United States for college at Western Kentucky University. After graduating in 1967 with a degree in chemistry and math, he went to Germany and began serving as an officer in the Army. In 1969 and 1970, Willis spent a year as a field artillery staff officer based in the Saigon area of Vietnam.

Later, he received a graduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso, and then helped design Patriot missiles for the Army. When Ronald Reagan was in office, Willis worked at the Pentagon developing sensors for detecting the launch of hostile missiles as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars.

In 1988, Willis retired from the military and applied for teaching jobs in Fairfax and Prince William. Administrators at Gar-Field offered him a job as a math teacher. He took it.

"I enjoyed working with troops, and I didn't like staff jobs," he said. "When you teach, you get such motivation by watching students learn and seeing them excited, and how they go from one level of confidence to another."

His work has paid off. In 2003 and 2005, his International Baccalaureate physics students exceeded both the national and world averages on their exams. School administrators know the man has talent, which means, inevitably, one thing: He's going to get busier.

"I have just put him in charge of the robotics team that we're going to do next year," Cavalier said. "He's excited."

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