William Walton, 84; taught at MIT, worked in Africa

By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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As a teacher and a scientist, William Walton always looked for innovative ways to demonstrate the wonders of the natural world to his pupils.

When he was teaching in Nigeria in the 1960s and had limited resources, he used whatever he could find as teaching aids. He used bamboo to construct a playground and paper to make flip books that detailed the cycle of the moon, as well as water-drop microscopes capable of detecting tiny organisms in lake water.

Later, when he was teaching MIT students the principles of inertial navigation, he had his students use a simplified bubble accelerometer to measure the speed and distance between stops on the subway in Boston.

“He was the original hands-on science teacher,’’ said Harvard astronomy professor Philip Sadler, one of his former students. “He was brilliant at inventing really simple ways to teach science that would engage students from the elementary to college levels. He was an amazingly gifted teacher.’’

William U. Walton, an educator and scientist, died of pneumonia June 10 at his home in Hingham. He was 84.

Born in Salt Lake City, Mr. Walton grew up in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1943 from Wilson High School.

After spending a year at George Washington University, Mr. Walton enlisted in the Navy. He served as an electronics technician at the close of World War II, stationed in Chicago. While in Chicago, he met Althea Volland, who was working for the USO. They were married in 1949 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

After his time in the Navy, Mr. Walton earned a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1949 and a master of science degree in physics the following year, both from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Waltons then moved to Wooster, Ohio, where Mr. Walton taught physics at the College of Wooster. After a year, the couple relocated to Rochester, Minn., where Mr. Walton took a teaching position at Rochester Junior College.

In 1961, Mr. Walton accepted a job at Webster College, now Webster University, in St. Louis, where in addition to teaching physics, he helped develop math and science curriculums at the elementary and high school levels.

Mr. Walton then became involved with the Education Development Center, a Newton-based nonprofit that specializes in global educational and economic development. Through the center’s African Primary Science Program, Mr. Walton began to take summer trips to Africa to help develop school curriculums.

In 1966, Mr. Walton took his family to Enugu, Nigeria. While in Africa, he helped to develop innovative techniques to teach science to elementary and high school students and trained other teachers. It was an experience he would cherish.

“He was very interested in discovering what people knew and how they knew it; he wanted to teach people new ways of teaching,’’ said his wife, Althea. “That was the time of our lives.’’

After a year, the family was forced to flee the Nigerian-Biafran War. Mr. Walton’s wife and daughter were evacuated to the United States, while Mr. Walton and his two sons went to Ghana. The family later reunited in Nairobi, where they remained until returning to the United States in 1968.

They lived in Needham, and Mr. Walton began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he continued to explore new ways of teaching science to students of all ages. He continued to work with the Educational Development Center.

In 1977, Mr. Walton went to work for noted physicist Frank Oppenheimer at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. He stayed at the interactive museum for two years until he took a position in Richmond as a senior staff scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia.

After decades of teaching at colleges, Mr. Walton found the world of museum work immensely rewarding.

“He got out of colleges because he thought no one was really enjoying learning physics that way,’’ Mrs. Walton said. “He liked museums, where he could use a hands-on type of teaching and make it fun.’’

Mr. Walton aided in the expansion of the museum into the historic Broad Street rail station and created a number of original exhibits, including one of the largest exhibits ever on crystallography, and he helped build a mammoth sundial.

“It’s what he did all his life,’’ said his daughter Susan, of Plympton. “Developing interesting and intriguing ways of demonstrating scientific principles.’’

Mr. Walton was also active in the Boy Scouts organization for nearly all his life. After his father died at a young age, Mr. Walton’s scoutmaster served as a surrogate father. Mr. Walton later served as a scoutmaster and a mentor to several Scout troops.

Mr. Walton retired in 1991, and moved back to Massachusetts five years later to be closer to his family. He volunteered at the Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation, as well as the Plymouth Public Library.

“He was a very unassuming person that still managed to touch a lot of people,’’ Susan said. “He was always teaching.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Walton leaves his sons, Ralph of Mission Hill and Dale of Bangkok; his sister, Charlotte Franklin of Estes Park, Colo.; and four grandchildren. A Celebration of Life service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the East Sandwich Friends Meeting House.