By. Gretchen Hooker, Educational Resources Manager at the Biomimicry Institute
Mention frog mucus to a group of tenth-graders and you might expect to hear a collective “yuck.” To a class of sophomores from Kearny High School for Engineering Innovation and Design in San Diego, California, the slimy substance on frogs’ skin sparked ideas for solving a big agricultural dilemma, using an emerging design practice called biomimicry.
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature—the rapidly growing practice of emulating nature’s strategies and patterns to create more sustainable technologies for people. For example, looking to a leaf for ideas about how to make a better solar cell, mimicking how a peacock feather selectively reflects light to produce beautiful colors without pigment, or studying how schools of fish swim to develop more efficient wind farms. It is an approach that is revolutionizing how designers, engineers, and other innovators solve problems and has lead to exciting advances in technology. (To browse a catalog of biomimetic innovations visit www.AskNature.org/Ideas)
Biomimicry is shaping education, too. As states across the country adopt new standards that place engineering activities prominently within youth education, teachers are discovering that biomimicry offers a great way to meet those requirements while keeping students captivated and engaged. The compelling narratives and fascinating natural phenomena behind biomimetic innovations provide a refreshing point of entry into many of the core scientific subjects educators are already teaching. Plus, biomimicry is accessible—it does not require fancy new equipment or STEM labs to implement because nature is all around us, waiting to inspire.
For example, you can ask your students, “What does the curved tip of an eagle’s wing have to do with the upturned wingtips on commercial jets?” The answer is a lesson in aerodynamics and the physics of drag and lift. You might ask, “What do wetlands have to do with clean water?” This can begin a dialogue about ecology, biodiversity, and nutrient cycles that can then be connected to water treatment issues and innovations.
Biomimicry design challenges are an especially effective way to bring biomimicry into the classroom and engage students with diverse learning styles. These hands-on, minds-on experiences naturally blend STEAM, environmental literacy, and 21st century skills like collaboration and problem-solving. During a design challenge, students study the strategies various organisms have evolved to meet specific functional needs (e.g. “prevent heat loss”) and then apply what they learn to address a similar human challenge (e.g. home insulation) in an innovative design concept.
“The kids who love it are the ones who maybe don’t like reading from a textbook. They don’t like listening to lectures. But they love building, and they love designing. And I think biomimicry just lends itself so well to those kids,” remarked Sharon Kaffen, a Chemistry Coach at the NIHF STEM High School in Akron, Ohio. The STEM High School is a member of the Great Lakes Biomimicry Network Education Consortium, which is working to introduce biomimicry in K-12 schools throughout the northeast Ohio region. Kaffen continued, “Nothing makes you feel better than to see a student who maybe hasn’t … had their interest sparked, seeing them get excited about education, and get excited about building something.”
“When you bring nature into a project, the kids get really excited. It makes it more engaging,” concurs Emily Liebenberg, an English teacher at Kearny High School for Engineering Innovation and Design. In 2015, Emily and a team of teachers at Kearny organized a 10th grade project-based learning unit around the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, an annual competition hosted by the Biomimicry Institute to advance biomimicry learning and innovation. Sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, each year the Challenge calls for nature-inspired solutions to a critical global issue.
In 2015, the Design Challenge was focused on designing solutions for a better food system. Within this framework, Liebenberg and her colleagues found that they could address a semester’s worth of learning objectives in biology, engineering, and English. First, the students read about and analyzed problems within the food system. Then they worked in teams to research strategies in nature that could inform solutions to issues like food waste, making packaging more sustainable, or, in the case of the team inspired by frog mucus, keeping moisture in the soil. After a lot of hard work and creative thinking, they refined their design concepts and produced multimedia presentations to communicate their ideas. The students were enthusiastic and engaged throughout the process. “[Biomimicry is] such a growing thing that’s gaining popularity, and they felt like they were on the brink of something exciting,” Liebenberg told us. While her students did not win awards in the Global Challenge that year, the school did receive second place in a district-wide science competition.
The Kearny High teams were among the first high school students to compete in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. This year (2016-17) marks the third year that the Challenge’s student category has been open to high schoolers and participation has been growing steadily. Last year’s winners, beating out dozens of university submissions, were a high school team of young women from Ontario, Canada. One interesting and unanticipated outcome of the Design Challenge has been a noticeable influx of female participation. With few exceptions, for the past five years, winning Design Challenge teams were either led by women or were comprised of all women (in both the student and professional categories). In addition, overall participation in the Challenge is evenly split between males and females, an unusual statistic for science-based competitions. It seems that nature-inspired education may be a way to help close the gender gap in STE(A)M careers.
Another happy outcome has been a growing interest among high school students and teachers. To capture this demand, the Institute released a free suite of curriculum materials created specifically for this population. Dr. Dorothy Ginnett, science curriculum specialist with Cooperative Educational Services Agency #5 (CESA5) based in Portage, Wisconsin is among the first educators to implement this new curriculum. Dr. Ginnett selected the Design Challenge as a framework for CESA5’s Gifted and Talented program for the 2016-17 academic year. “STEM careers will require advanced content training paired with skills in both teamwork and creative thinking,” she said. “Biomimicry is a wonderful interdisciplinary space for students to explore creative problem-solving while engaging with nature.” Jane McMahon, another teacher in the CESA5 program also observed, “Learning about and practicing biomimicry can help students recognize structures and patterns in nature that can lead to innovative ideas in several other disciplines/arenas.”
Student teams from six school districts within CESA5’s service area are working on biomimetic solutions that address challenges associated with climate change–the current Global Challenge theme. They will submit their designs to the judges in April. When asked about the students’ experiences so far, teacher Craig Panich noted, “I truly believe they are enjoying the process. The critical thinking involved in the process of competing in the biomimicry challenge is helping my students to investigate methods and strategies of problem solving they are less familiar with, yet valuable tools that can be applied to their future education and careers.”
Biomimicry is visionary; it is about reimagining human-made technologies and redesigning the human-built world. Incorporating nature’s sustainable design lessons into the classroom not only offers students a way to learn by going outside, getting dirty, and observing natural wonders, but it also equips our future scientists, architects, designers, and world-changers with the tools to envision and create the radically sustainable solutions we so desperately need today. Many educational efforts around environmental problems like climate change focus on bad news like severe weather, extinctions of iconic species, and ecosystem collapse. While it is important to understand the full weight of the problems they face, leaving the lesson there can be deeply depressing, for both students and teachers. Imbued with a sense of wonder and possibility, biomimicry gives students the hopeful message that a sustainable world exists all around us and empowers them to think, “I can make things better.”
For an introduction to biomimicry for K-12 educators, check out our free publication, Sharing Biomimicry with Young People.
If you would like to learn more about the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge and access the free high school curriculum, please visit challenge.biomimicry.org.
About the Author
Gretchen Hooker is Educational Resources Manager at the Biomimicry Institute, where she coordinates the development of resources that serve the Institute’s design challenges and education outreach efforts. Gretchen is a certified Biomimicry Specialist and holds a master’s degree in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. A nature nerd at heart, her passion is creating educational content and strategic programming that builds design and ecological literacy.