Hands-on Activity: Design Inspired by Nature

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Two colorful drawings: on the top is a leaf and on the bottom is a spiral shell.
Figure 1. Biomimicry uses natural items as design inspiration.
copyright
Copyright © 2009 Lauren Cooper, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Summary

Students discover how engineers can use biomimicry to enhance their designs. They learn how the careful observation of nature—becoming a nature detective, so to speak—can lead to new innovations and products. In this activity, students reverse engineer a flower to glean design ideas for new products.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Plants and animals are truly nature's engineers. For example, a simple leaf can harness solar energy more efficiently than our best solar panels. Over millions of years, plants and animals have developed ingenious ways to survive on Earth. As engineers, we can consult nature to improve upon our existing designs and products. By studying nature, we can also gain inspiration for designs that have never before existed.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain how biomimicry can be used to enhance engineering design.
  • Describe the process to reverse engineer an object.
  • Explain how brainstorming in a team can lead to more creative ideas.

More Curriculum Like This

Biomimicry: Natural Designs

Students learn about biomimicry and how engineers often imitate nature in the design of innovative new products. They demonstrate their knowledge of biomimicry by practicing brainstorming and designing a new product based on what they know about animals and nature.

Elementary Activity
Live Like an Animal

Students design innovative human shelters that are inspired and informed by animal structures. Each group is assigned an animal class, and then they gather information about shelters used by the animals in that class.

Middle School Activity
Copycat Engineers

Students are introduced to the idea of biomimicry—or looking to nature for engineering ideas. Students learn about a few fun examples of the many creative and useful instances of biomimicry.

Middle School Lesson
Biomimicry and Sustainable Design - Nature Is an Engineering Marvel

Students are introduced to the concepts of biomimicry and sustainable design. As students focus on applying the ecological principles of the previous lessons to the future design of our human-centered world, they also learn that often our practices are incapable of replicating the precision in which...

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design involves a set of steps, which can be performed in different sequences and repeated as needed. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each team needs:

  • 1-2 flowers (lilies or sunflowers work best)
  • tools to reverse engineer the flower, such as toothpicks, tweezers, cutting tools
  • magnifying glass
  • 1 sheet of blank paper
  • markers or colored pencils
  • Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet
  • 1 plastic bag to store the flower components if the activity is completed over more than one day

Introduction/Motivation

Who has heard of the word "biomimicry"? We can guess what the word means by breaking it into smaller words. "Bio" means "life," and "mimic" means "to imitate." Biomimicry, then, is precisely that—imitating life or objects in nature to solve human challenges. What are some human challenges that we face? (Possible answers: Harnessing energy, food and farming, building shelter, creating new materials and products, etc.)

Animals and plants face the same challenges as we do. Engineers can study the way nature has approached solutions to these challenges to improve their own designs. For example, a plant must find a way to transport nutrients to its leaves and petals just like humans must find ways to transport water and air through buildings. With the inspiration from how plants do it, engineers might design water and air transport systems that are more "plant like." Another example can be found in the ocean, where sea creatures must find ways to build strong shells for shelter—just like humans are challenged to design ways to build sturdy houses.

Photo shows three woman at a table closely examining lilies and sketch ideas.
Figure 2. A small group of students studies lilies for design inspiration.
copyright
Copyright © 2009 Malinda Schaefer Zarske, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Engineers may also use biomimicry to come up with designs and products that have never before existed. For example, geckos have amazingly sticky feet that allow them to scurry up walls and hang from ceilings. These little lizards have millions of tiny hairs and pads on their feet which produce electrical attractions. The shape of their feet and their electrical attractions "glue" the gecko to a surface — even to polished glass. When geckos walk, their tiny hairs and pads roll onto a surface and then peel off again, just like tape. Today, engineers are studying the gecko in hopes of creating an adhesive that would be dry and self-cleaning. What about tape? Wouldn't it be cool to have a roll of tape that never lost its stickiness? These are the types of questions you can ask nature as you learn more about biomimicry. 

Today we are going to study a flower for design inspiration. To get ideas for new designs, we are going to reverse engineer our flower. Reverse engineering is the process of discovering the technical principles of an object by taking it apart and carefully studying its different parts. Besides inspiring new designs, studying the components of the flower will also help us better understand how the flower functions as a whole. Once we understand how the flower works, we can create new designs using the flower as our natural model. Perhaps the flower is a good model for a house? A water catchment system? New waterproof materials? The possibilities are endless!

Vocabulary/Definitions

biomimicry: Copying or imitating the special characteristics of naturally-existing things (animals, plants, etc.) in human-made designs, products or systems. The science that studies nature to find solutions to human challenges. From bio, meaning life, and mimesis, to imitate.

brainstorming: A group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. In brainstorming, you want to 1) focus on quantity (the more ideas, the merrier); 2) avoid criticizing any group member's ideas; 3) welcome unusual ideas; and 4) combine and improve ideas.

design: To form or conceive in the mind; to make drawings, sketches or plans for a work; to design a new product; to design an improved process.

innovation: A new way of doing something; creating new ideas, methods, or products.

reverse engineering: The process of discovering the technological principles of an object by taking it apart and carefully understanding its parts to better understand the whole object.

Procedure

Background

Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to create a more efficient solar cell is an example of nature-inspired design. The premise is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already found solutions to many human design challenges.>

As an approach to problem-solving and design, biomimicry is impacting the way engineers design our products and systems. More and more, engineers are consulting nature's genius to answer pressing questions such as, "How will we harness energy?" or "How will we make our materials?" and "How will we come up with new product designs to compete in a global marketplace?" We are discovering that for every human challenge, nature has a time-tested solution.

Example innovations inspired by animals and plants:

  • Airplanes modeled after birds (wing and body shapes)
  • Swimsuits worn by Olympic athletes that imitate dolphin and shark skin membranes
  • Radar and sonar navigation and medical imaging inspired by the echo-location abilities of bats
  • Re-usable adhesives inspired by the powerful adhesion abilities of geckos and lizards
  • Super-strong and waterproof silk fibers made without toxic chemicals by spiders
  • A better ice pick for mountain climbers designed after the woodpecker
  • Glow sticks made with light-up chemicals, just like fireflies
  • Very efficient pumps and exhaust fans applying the spiraling geometric pattern found in nautilus sea shells, galaxies and whirlpools

Example inventions inspired by plants:

  • Hook and loop material (Velcro®) inspired by cockleburs
  • Solar cells inspired by plant leaves (photosynthesis, capturing energy from sunlight)
  • A wind-driven planetary rover design that maximizes drag, learned from the tumbleweed
  • Self-cleaning exterior paint, tiles, window glass and umbrella fabric inspired by the slick leaves of the lotus flower plant and its natural ability to wash away dirt particles in the rain

At the core of these biomimicry applications lie fundamental, intuitive concepts. Derived from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate, biomimicry is not a new way of thinking—we have studied nature for solutions since the beginning of human history. Early human civilizations evolved by play, imitation, and trial and error. If you watch animals in nature, or even small children, you see that they, too, learn by play, imitation, and trial and error. Many indigenous cultures still engage in a more connected relationship with the natural world. They observe animals and birds to learn the best techniques for stalking prey, identifying edible foods, and predicting weather changes. Some of our early inventions were discovered by watching nature; for example, the airplane (inspired by birds of flight) and Velcro® (invented in 1948 by a Swiss mountaineer who returned from a hike covered in burrs).

In essence, biomimicry provides a holistic framework for engineering design that challenges us to look beyond what we see in the human-made environment to the more subtle designs found in nature. These subtle designs can lead to innovative materials and products that have never before existed.

Before Activity

  1. Gather materials.
  2. Make copies of the Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet.
  3. Review the above examples of biomimicry (more examples can be found through resources listed in the Reference section).
  4. Practice reverse engineering a flower to prepare for the types of questions the students will ask.

With the Students

Part I: Reverse Engineering

  1. Review the main concepts of biomimicry and present several case studies to motivate students.
  2. (recommended) Complete the pre-assessment activity before conducting the main activity. This helps set the stage for the reverse engineering challenge.
  3. Divide the class into groups of 2-3 students each.
  4. Give each group a worksheet.
  5. Use the worksheet to review the concept and procedure of reverse engineering before handing teams their flowers and tools. You could even require each team to answer an Investigating Question before handing out the materials.
  6. Give each group a set of reverse engineering tools, such as toothpicks, tweezers, cutting tools, magnifying glasses and plastic bags.
  7. Direct students to begin reverse engineering their flowers. Make sure the groups are following their worksheets, which outline the following four steps:

A photograph of two students reverse engineering a sunflower. Shown are the flower petals scattered on a white sheet of paper.
Figure 3. Two students reverse engineer a sunflower.
copyright
Copyright © 2009 Lauren Cooper, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

a. Carefully take apart the flower and sketch its different components.

b. Describe the colors and textures of the flower. Why was the flower created with these materials?

c. Describe the overall shape and structure of the flower. What challenge might the flower solve by having this shape and structure?

d. How could an engineer mimic the material, color, shape and structure of the flower to design something new?

e. What scientific concepts that you have learned about before relate to the flower? How could you use these in your design?

Part II: Product Design

  1. Once students are finished reverse engineering the flowers, ask them to brainstorm potential new products based on what they observed. For example, products inspired by the flower might be new waterproof clothing, a water catchment system for a house, lightweight building materials, a skyscraper that can sway in the wind without breaking, etc.
  2. Have each group brainstorm potential products for about 10 minutes. Have them write down or draw everyone's ideas generated during the brainstorming process.
  3. Ask groups to choose one final product to present to the class. Give students a list of design criteria or constraints. For instance: size, budget, materials, resources, cultural setting etc. This helps students to put on their "engineering hats." Examples might include one of the following:
  • Require students to develop designs that help solve environmental problems.
  • Require students to develop designs that help solve health/medical problems.
  • Require students to develop designs that could be built in a developing country or rural area with limited resources.
  • Give students a hypothetical budget, such as $100.
  • Require that students' designs result in zero waste, that is use entirely reusable materials.
  1. Give each group another 10 minutes to develop the best ideas for their final products. Require them to make sketches and notes about their products on a fresh sheet of paper. Have students incorporate the teacher's design constraints, as appropriate.
  2. Ask each group to present its product to the rest of the class. If groups feel comfortable, have them draw their ideas on the classroom board and answer other teams' questions about their products.
  3. After all groups have presented, lead the post-asessment activity with the students.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Students may have trouble coming up with ideas for the fourth question on the worksheet: How could an engineer mimic the material, color, shape and structure of the flower to design something new? If students seem stumped, ask them the question in a different way. For example: Does a flower's shape (or material, or colors or structure) remind you of something you see that is human-made? Could you redesign that human-made object based on what you see in this flower? For example, When I look at this flower, I am amazed by the way water on the petals forms tiny balls and then rolls down to the stem. When I watch this, I think about a new material that could be designed to collect and transport water. Maybe we could design a water catchment system for a roof?

Investigating Questions

  • What is biomimicry? (Answer: Biomimicry is the close examination of nature's best ideas and then imitating these designs to creatively solve human problems or come up with materials and products that have never existed before.)
  • Can you think of anything that is based on or inspired by nature? (Possible answers: Airplanes – based on birds; Velcro® - based on cockleburs; solar panels – based on photosynthesis in plant leaves.)
  • What is reverse engineering? (Answer: Reverse engineering is the process of better understanding an object by taking it apart and studying its different pieces and how they work together.)
  • Can you think of a time when you took something apart and learned more about it by studying its pieces? (Example answers: I took apart my bike to better understand how the wheel was attached; I took apart my pen to see what parts were in it; I took apart my remote-control toy to see how the circuit board looked, etc.)
  • Why do we use brainstorming when working in a team? (Answer: Brainstorming helps us come up with many more ideas for the solution to a problem.)
  • Can you give me an example of good and bad brainstorming? Remember: when we brainstorm, we want to: 1) generate a long list of ideas; 2) never criticize any group member's ideas; 3) welcome unusual ideas; and 4) combine and improve ideas. (Possible answers: Good brainstorming – "Wow! That is a really creative idea! I've never thought of such a thing. Maybe we can combine your idea with some simpler ideas to come up with something innovative yet practical"; Bad brainstorming – "Ugh. Your idea is just way too weird. It will never work.")

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Listening to Nature: Take students outside and have them close their eyes. Direct them to spend a moment being completely quiet. Talk them through paying attention to what they are hearing, smelling, the way air feels on their skin, the ground beneath them. Make the point that if we want to learn from nature, we must get out of our human mindset and into the mindset of other organisms. As humans, we use our eyes a lot. Other animals may use other senses to learn what is going on around them.

Once students are finished listening, ask them to share what they observed when they had their eyes closed. Did they feel they were more in tune to what was happening around them? Emphasize the idea that careful observation of nature—becoming a "nature detective"—can lead to the inspiration for new designs and products.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Use the Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet to guide the students through the reverse engineering activity. Examine their sketches and answers to asses their depth of comprehension of the activity concepts.

Post-Activity Assessment

My Favorite Animal or Plant: Have each student choose his or her favorite animal (or plant) and sketch it on a piece of paper. After sketching, ask them to reverse engineer the object (on paper or in their minds). Challenge them to think of a new engineering design application inspired by their favorite animal or plant. These do not have to be feasible ideas; the point is to get students thinking about the possibility of looking to nature for design ideas. Students might feel like they need to gather more information about the animal or plant. If so, assign this background research as homework, and continue this assessment at a later class time.

Activity Extensions

Create a Prototype Challenge students to turn their product ideas into reality by designing simple prototypes. Product ideas might be taken from the flower reverse engineering activity or from the post-activity assessment. Students' prototypes might be very simple representations of products (sketches or physical models made using basic classroom or household materials); the important point to emphasize is to focus on modeling the product, not the animal or plant that inspired the product. For example, the drawing of the "moon-walking device" in Figure 4 was inspired by the dragonfly, whose wings are very precise and able to cling to many materials.

A black and white sketch of a Moon Walking Device, inspired by the dragonfly, and designed by elementary students.
Figure 4. What if we could design human devices that were as nimble as the dragonfly?
copyright
Copyright © 2009 Lauren Cooper, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Call to Action! We study biomimicry not only to glean ideas from nature but also to understand why we should protect all species of life on Earth. Every time a species becomes extinct, we lose the chance to study the design strategies contained within that animal or plant. By working to protect animals' and plants' environments and habitats, engineers are literally keeping nature's design inspiration alive. Ask students to create a Call to Action! poster about their favorite animals and plants. Students may want to describe the animal or plant, provide information about its habitat, and explain challenges to survival the animal or plant is currently facing and what people can do to help keep this species stay alive. This activity extension work well with the post-activity assessment.

Activity Scaling

For younger students, complete the reverse engineering challenge as a class. Verbally walk them through the worksheet. It may be helpful to write students' ideas on the board and brainstorm new product ideas as a group.

For older students, ask them to bring in their own natural artifacts for the reverse engineering challenge. This adds variety to the resulting products inspired from nature.

References

The Biomimicry Institute, "Inspiring, educating and connecting biomimics through the world," 2007-2009. Accessed August 5, 2009. http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org

Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997

Contributors

Lauren Cooper; Malinda Zarske; Janet Yowell

Copyright

© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the DOE or NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: December 1, 2017

Comments