After 25 years of teaching at GDS, high school science teacher Bill Wallace will retire at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
Currently, Wallace teaches Neuroscience, Physiology and Research Methods in Biology. Before GDS stopped offering AP science classes in 2018, he taught AP Biology. He also coached men’s soccer at GDS from 2000 to 2005.
In 2017, Wallace and Bobby Asher, the current Director of Student Life and Wellness, worked together to design the neuroscience class, a course that is popular among juniors and seniors. “It was something we talked about doing for years,” Asher said.
Wallace described the neuroscience course as a “unique” class. “There is no other course in the country, and I have searched, that teaches neuroscience the way that we do,” he said. He added that what makes the class unique is the curriculum’s combination of biology and neuroscience.
Asher said that Wallace writes the textbook for the class and has added more chapters as recently as the summer of 2022.
Wallace is “such a nice guy,” said senior Jacqueline Metzger, who is taking neuroscience this year. “He’s funny, he’s definitely a little quirky, but all the best GDS teachers are,” she added. “He has a way of making people feel at ease and a way of making people feel included. He just has a genuine love of teaching and it shines through in class.”
In past years, Wallace focused on one specific disease for his physiology class to study, such as pediatric cancer and diabetes. This year, however, Wallace is covering several different diseases such as kuru disease and sickle cell anemia. “He’s calling it his all-star year, since it’s his last year,” junior Sala Higgins, a student in Wallace’s physiology class, said.
Wallace told the Bit that the freedom GDS grants teachers was one of the most enjoyable elements of his time at the school. “GDS has allowed me to innovate,” he said. He added that he created the three courses he teaches.
“His style of teaching is really good,” Higgins said. “He’s also so knowledgeable about what he is teaching,” she added.
Before coming to GDS in 1998, Wallace was an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the Fishberg Center for Neuroscience at Mount Sinai in New York from 1986 to 1992. From 1992 to 1998, he ran a lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he studied Alzheimers.
He added that his research experience at the NIH carried over particularly well to his Research Methods in Biology course, a class that fosters the scientific process and questioning, Wallace said. “The best way to get kids to think scientifically is to present kids with scientific problems, and that’s the basis of this course,” he added.
Wallace said that he disliked teaching AP science classes because “it’s taught like a survey course: lots of topics, not much detail and not a lot of the kids doing science.” The rigid AP tests were another concern that Wallace raised to Head of School Russell Shaw and others in the administration. “The AP test was just regurgitating back information, but not a whole lot of what do you do with that information.”
Despite his gratitude for the freedom GDS gave him, Wallace expressed some frustrations in an interview with the Bit. “We don’t do enough for kids who want to do science outside the classroom,” he said. As a result, Wallace has been mentoring students over the summer outside GDS.
“I would love to see a program where a 9th grader can come in and say, ‘I’m interested in research,’ and then for four years follow this program so for their junior and senior years they can actually do an investigation,” he explained.
“The number of research opportunities he’s created for kids in the summers is amazing,” Asher said.
One student who benefited from Wallace’s mentorship is Emily Scarrow ’21. She started researching with Wallace in 2019, the summer of her sophomore year. Scarrow continued her research project with an independent study her junior year, under Wallace’s continued mentorship. This summer, she is working at the NIH with the Deputy Chief of Cancer Research, an opportunity she credits to Wallace.
Wallace’s departure will lead to some changes in the science department’s curricula and course offerings. Science Department Chair Nina Butler-Roberts admires Wallace’s love for his courses. “The beautiful thing is that those courses were built out of Bill’s love for those subjects, so I don’t think anybody could teach it the way Bill does,” she said.
She expects some change in course availability. The Research in Biology class is listed as “not offered” in the 2023-24 High School Course of Study, but the neuroscience and physiology courses are still being offered. Asher said that it is uncertain whether or not another teacher will be hired to teach neuroscience with him.
Butler-Roberts said that if a lot of students register for neuroscience or physiology, then a new teacher may be hired to teach these courses. She added that despite Wallace’s retirement, she hopes to reach out to him informally and consult with him about the future of the science department.
After retiring, Wallace and his wife, who is part Swedish and is also retiring, plan to live in Sweden for the summer and visit family in South Africa. He plans to eventually start a D.C. Chapter of the National Science Teacher Association once he returns from Sweden. He also plans to serve as Head of Alumni for D.C. winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching, a prestigious award in which the president of the United States recognizes up to 108 science and mathematics teachers a year. He won the award in 2011.
“I hope people realize Bill is really an institution here,” Asher said. “He gives a lot of his heart and his everything to the kids.”