Barry Aprison Helps People Interact with Science

Barry Aprison. Credit: Bruce Powell

Barry Aprison, a biologist and AAAS Fellow, spent two decades designing hands-on exhibits to entice the public into the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Now he's working to figure out how to bring that interactive museum-type experience to schools and other settings to inject excitement into the STEM curriculum.

Aprison, education and outreach director at the Institute for Genomics & Systems Biology at the University of Chicago, was director of science and technology at the museum in Chicago from 1988 to 2007. While there, he developed such successful exhibits as Imaging: The Tools of Science, his first project, and Genetics: Decoding Life, which has been viewed by 10 million people since its debut in 2002. After a stint at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, he has been back at the University of Chicago for eight years. He also teaches in the Biological Sciences Division at the college.

“I love thinking about how to engage individuals in interactive experiences that will help them learn something new,” said Aprison, who is also education and outreach director for The Conte Center for Computational Neuropsychiatric Genomics Research, headquartered at the university. “Some people can read a textbook and understand a concept, but a lot of other folks need that hands-on experience. For them, it needs to be more tangible.”

Aprison designs and executes education and training programs for students and teachers, from high school through post-doctoral fellows and faculty. He's exploring a number of strategies. In part to demonstrate that the university “can be as powerful a science venue” for the public as any museum, for DNA Day 2016, Aprison brought three dynamic young researchers who he calls “outstanding communicators of science”—Alison Bell, Jacob Michaelson, and Danielle Dick—to the University of Chicago. On a Saturday morning, they explained their work to an audience of university students, high school teachers and students, and other community members.

“Some high school science teachers have never actually met a scientist,” Aprison noted.

Another initiative uses cutting-edge research for a lesson that's a mash-up of genetics and two of the peskier science topics to teach, according to Aprison—diffusion and osmosis. (Many people, even college biology majors, have misconceptions about these processes, he said.) Richard L. Morimoto, a biologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, works with mutant nematodes that, unlike normal nematodes, don't stress when salinity spikes in their surroundings. Aprison developed an educational model for his university’s Research Experiences for the Biological Sciences (RIBS) program for high school students and as a portable museum “slice” he's taken to local high schools, that uses some of Morimoto's worms. This model gives facilitators, teachers, and students the chance to explore both what happens when the salt content in the water an animal lives in increases, and also how a more adaptive worm can actually develop through genetic mutation.

“We can bring these topics to life,” Aprison said.

When Aprison was growing up in Indianapolis, his father, a neurobiology and biochemistry professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and his mother, a primary-grades schoolteacher, encouraged several hobbies. He had a biology lab and a model train layout in the basement (Aprison designed the scale-model landscapes himself), a dipole antenna strung from trees 20 feet up in the front yard to support the shortwave radio he'd built with his dad, loads of electronics kits and, later, strategy games from Avalon Hill that taught him to “simulate complexity on the board.”

He also has “very strong memories of certain exhibits” he saw as a child, some of them “very simple.” Ray and Charles Eames' Mathematica exhibit, which Aprison recalls from the Museum of Science and Industry, had one section, a Galton box, with “hundreds and hundreds of balls falling from the ceiling, hitting an array of pegs that made them bounce off to either side, and every time, they formed a normal statistical distribution, a bell curve. I was so fascinated, watching that display and wondering how that happened.”

Aprison loved art, but he went to graduate school in biology, receiving his Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1984. He was finishing up a post-doc at Indiana University in genetics, on the brink of a career in academic science, when he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to the heads of a number of science museums, proposing they take him on as a project director. James “Jack” Kahn, the geophysicist who ran the Museum of Science and Industry at the time, hired him. While at that job, Aprison watched how long people engaged with an exhibit to see if it was working. “If they stay with it, you know you have something,” he said.

Both Aprison's science background and his early training in art helped him design exhibits. He'd also had the opportunity to watch a number of top scientists teach their own students. “They often develop hands-on ways of illustrating the principles they're trying to convey,” he said.

For example, University of Chicago physics professor Heinrich Jaeger used a large, transparent disk full of mustard seeds to demonstrate the dynamics of granular systems — at what angle does the mass of mustard seed, functioning essentially like a liquid, begin to move? Aprison said he loved Jaeger's demonstration so much he incorporated it into the last exhibit he worked on at the MSI, as the avalanche component in Science Storms.

Aprison also values those scientists who are superb public communicators—the late Carl Sagan was one of his heroes in that regard—because, he said, in the end, conveying the true excitement of science is about engagement, it's about empathy. No matter how smart you are, “If you don't have empathy, you can't tell a story.”

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