Curricular Unit: Sustainable Design and Biomimicry in a Desert Ecosystem

Quick Look

Grade Level: 9 (9-12)

Choose From: 4 lessons and 5 activities

Subject Areas: Biology

Saguaro National Park desert landscape.
Students design for the Saguaro National Park
Copyright © Wendy H. Holmgren (author); used with permission


Students are presented with an engineering challenge: To design a sustainable guest village within the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Through four lessons and five associated activities, they study ecological relationships with an emphasis on the Sonoran Desert. They examine species adaptations. They come to appreciate the complexity and balance that supports the exchange of energy and matter within food webs. Then students apply what they have learned about these natural relationships to the study of biomimicry and sustainable design. They study the flight patterns of birds and relate their functional design to aeronautical engineering. A computer simulation model is also incorporated into this unit and students use this program to examine perturbations within a simple ecosystem. The solution rests within the lessons and applications of this unit.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

The study of ecological processes that stress the strategies of energy conservation along with recycling of resources in the absence of waste and pollution are time-tested models for industry and urban design. They provide examples of sustainable design and biomimicry. The engineering fields of civil, aeronautical, manufacturing, automotive, electrical and architectural have benefited from the ingenuity observed within ecosystems.

Unit Overview

This four-lesson "legacy cycle" unit for science and technology classes is structured with a contextually-based Grand Challenge followed by a sequence of instruction in which students first offer initial predictions (Generate Ideas) and then gather information from multiple sources (Multiple Perspectives). This is followed by Research and Revise as students integrate and extend their knowledge through a variety of learning activities. The cycle concludes with formative (Test Your Mettle) and summative (Go Public) assessments that lead students towards answering the Challenge question. See below for the progression of the legacy cycle through the unit. Research and ideas behind this way of learning may be found in How People Learn, (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, National Academy Press, 2000); see the entire text at

The "legacy cycle" is similar to the "engineering design process" in that they both involve identifying an existing societal need, combining science and math to develop solutions, and using the research conclusions to design a clear, conceived solution to the original challenge. Though the engineering design process and the legacy cycle depend on correct and accurate solutions, each focuses particularly on how the solution is devised and presented. See an overview of the engineering design process at

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 (

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-LS2-1. Use mathematical and/or computational representations to support explanations of factors that affect carrying capacity of ecosystems at different scales. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Use mathematical and/or computational representations of phenomena or design solutions to support explanations.

Alignment agreement:

Ecosystems have carrying capacities, which are limits to the numbers of organisms and populations they can support. These limits result from such factors as the availability of living and nonliving resources and from such challenges such as predation, competition, and disease. Organisms would have the capacity to produce populations of great size were it not for the fact that environments and resources are finite. This fundamental tension affects the abundance (number of individuals) of species in any given ecosystem.

Alignment agreement:

The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

Alignment agreement:

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Unit Schedule


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2006 Vanderbilt University


Wendy H. Holmgren; Megan Johnston; Amber Spolarich

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 13, 2020


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