We want students to be makers and designers. But there’s a surprising source of inspiration for design: the natural world. This is the key idea behind biomimicry, which encourages engineers to pay close attention to nature in order to improve their designs. The following post is an exploration of what this idea means for classroom teachers as they plan out design projects.
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Why Biomimicry is Vital for Design
When you think of the future of space travel, chances are you’re not thinking about geckos. But actually, it turns out that innovations in adhesives lead to faster, stronger, and lighter weight spacecraft. While it may sound unsettling most of our world is “glued” together. Our cars. Our jets. Our computers. These complex machines often require advanced adhesives to keep the parts in place.
Enter geckos. See, it turns out that gecko feet have fascinating properties. I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m not a biologist or a chemical engineer. However, the folks at NASA are studying gecko feet in order to develop more innovative adhesives.
And it’s not just NASA. Southwest Airlines studied ant colony behavior as they developed the choose-your-own-seat system. When Japanese bullet trains were creating ear splitting “tunnel booms,” engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu collaborated with a team of designers who created a mash-up design from three different bird species. Engineers have studied shark skin, spider webs, and armadillos in developing new surfaces.
While we often think of nature as an inspiration for poetry and art, our natural world often serves as a source for inspiration in design and engineering. This is all part of a field of design called biomimetics, pioneered by the biologist Janine Benyus. Check out this video by Vox and 99% Invisible:
Rethinking STEM / STEAM
When we think of STEM and STEAM, we often connect engineering to physics or maybe even chemistry. Sometimes we dive into environmental science, with a push toward using human-created design to solve environmental issues. But biomimicry reminds us that innovation in design often works the opposite way – that nature can inspire solutions human problems as often as the manufactured world.
So, what does this mean for teachers?
When I taught a STEM block, I rarely, if ever, considered the role of biomimicry in design. Although we looked at green design for our eco-friendly kitchen products, we never really considered how our biological ecosystem could influence the design process. I wish I had asked students to make connections between the systems within an ecosystem and the design challenges in our human-created systems. We often talk about the role of empathy and human connection within design thinking. But what if we asked students to explore both the physical characteristics and the behavior of the biological world?
Use the natural world as a starting place for open-ended design.
When we first moved to Oregon, people said that all we would get is a “light dusting” of snow. But in late December, the “light dusting” was more like a dump of snow and our Phoenix-raised kids had their first ever snow days. They played around with it, building snow men, snow women, and, of course, snow unicorns – because . . . unicorns, why not?
At one point, Joel asked which items would melt the snow the fastest. From there, he tested out vinegar and oil (which is basically salad dressing), rubbing alcohol, shampoo, salt, sugar, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on. When he discovered that rubbing alcohol worked better than salt, he decided we should make a de-icer for our car windshield. I realize that’s not an original idea. But it was groundbreaking to him.
This was a small example of using a design process that began, not with a scenario or a problem or even empathy with an audience, but with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. It started with playful observations, which led to questions, which led to experiments, and eventually ideation, and design.
Nature has a way of creating positive disruptions by pulling us out of our interests, ideas, and systems and into something that is often humbling. This is what happens when kids go into the forest or walk beside the beach. But it’s also what happens when kids get to work in a garden.
As a teacher, you can ask questions like, “What fascinates you?” and “What does this make you wonder?” From there, students enter that place of curiosity and experimentation that often leads to design. They start to pay attention to how the world works and over time, it inspires them to create something new.
This approach has its limitations. It tends to be serendipitous, which can be a challenge when you have a highly-structured curriculum map with tight deadlines. There’s also no guarantee that curiosity will always lead to experimentation or that experiments will always lead to design.
However, there’s another approach that uses biomimicry as a part of the research process rather than the starting point for design.
Integrate biomimicry into the research process.
Last May, I worked with Chris Kesler (a STEM curriculum expert) and A.J. Juliani on a set of STEM projects. One of my favorite projects involved students looking at various bird beaks in order to solve an engineering challenge. It was the first time I had seen the connection between adaptations, natural selection, and engineering. At first I wondered if this was truly a STEM activity at all. Do engineers really think this way?
Over the last six months, I’ve been interacting with more engineers as a member of the team that’s developing our new university STEM certificate program. At first, I assumed biomimicry was a small niche within the engineering community. However, to my surprise, I found that engineers are often observe natural phenomenon in order to research potential solutions. One engineer described how he studied trees in order to rethink bridge design. Another described studying patterns in insect behavior when trying to make sense out of information architecture.
On some level, this requires advanced knowledge of both the engineering process and biology. However, teachers can help facilitate this type of thinking. If students are working on a specific engineering challenge, the teacher can provide curated resources that allow them to study the way organisms and ecosystems work in order to improve their designs.
Five Ways to Make This a Reality in Schools
- Create more access to natural spaces. If possible, find ways to get students outside more often. While makerspaces can inspire creativity, so can gardens. We need need to create green spaces that inspire students to observe and ask questions. In a digital world of virtual reality, augmented reality, and instant access to information, there is something deeply relevant in learning to slow down and pay attention to the natural world.
- Let students play more often. The seemingly spontaneous questions about the natural world are often the result of deep, relaxed, unstructured time. In other words, they’re the results of play.
- Help students learn how to observe. When I had to teach about adaptations, I brought in insects, crustaceans, and plants for students to observe. Instead of taking pictures, they had to sketch out what they saw. But first, I asked them to spend five minutes looking at the organism in front of them. They hated it at first. But eventually, something clicked. They noticed things they hadn’t paid attention to before. Nearly every group had at least one big “aha” moment that couldn’t have happened if they were snapping pictures. Students need to learn the art of observation.
- Integrate natural observations into the research process. When students work on design thinking and engineering products, consider finding ways for them to observe the natural world before they ideate or prototype.
- Encourage students to ask questions about the natural world. Find opportunities for students to engage in self-directed, sustained inquiry about ecosystems and organisms and let them chase their curiosity.
Not every student will grow up to be an engineer who uses biomimicry to solve complex problems. But that’s not the point. It’s not about preparing students to be engineers. It’s about helping them learn to think like engineers. There’s something powerful that happens when they can look at the natural world with a sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity and then connect those ideas to new designs that solve real-world problems. When this happens, they learn to think differently and ultimately grow into problem-solvers and creative thinkers.