Lesson: Copycat Engineers

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

An underwater photograph shows a blue shark swimming by
Figure 1. Engineers study the flexible skin of sharks and dolphins because it adjusts to different water pressures, a useful quality for submarines and airplanes.
Copyright © National Aeronautics and Space Administration http://quest.nasa.gov/ltc/nps/images/shark.jpg


Students are introduced to the idea of biomimicry—or looking to nature for engineering ideas. Biomimicry involves solving human problems by mimicking natural solutions. Students learn about a few fun examples of the many creative and useful instances of biomimicry.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers design products that are essential to our health, happiness and safety. To meet these human needs, engineers often look to nature's examples of efficient design solutions. The natural world provides myriad creative solutions that can inspire effective and elegant design ideas.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • List products or devices that are based on examples from nature.
  • Explain why engineers might want to copy ideas from nature in their designs.

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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?
  • Brainstorming is a group problem-solving design process in which each person in the group presents his or her ideas in an open forum. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Why can fish swim faster than you? (Listen to student ideas.) Fish bodies are shaped like smooth ovals so that water flows around them without resistance, or without getting in the way of movement (that is, the water moves around the fish's body). Also, the fins of fish are shaped to help effectively push water and make movement faster. What about frogs? What makes them fast swimmers? Even though frogs do not have round bodies and fins like fish, they still swim fast because of their webbed feet and how their legs move through the water.

Imagine designing tools like these so that we could move through water just as easily and quickly as fish and frogs. In fact, you do not need to imagine it, because engineers have already designed such products. Can you think of any examples? (Listen to student answers and then share some additional examples: flippers for your feet, webbed mitts for hands, boats with streamlined hulls, swimsuits made of low-resistance material for Olympic athletes.)

When engineers use examples from nature to inspire the design of new projects, we call this biomimicry. It is easy to remember this term, because "bio" means "life," and "mimic" means "to copy"; therefore, engineers copy examples from life. Aquatic animals are not the only examples that engineers study for biomimicry design. Almost any living thing can inspire an engineering solution. Here are just a few more quick examples:

  • The venom from some spiders kills insects much better than any of the chemicals that people have been using. Biochemical engineers are studying spider venom to try to develop alternatives to the harmful chemical pesticides (see Figure 2).
    A photograph shows a black and furry spider with a clear tube next to it. The venom is extracted through the tube.
    Figure 2. The milking of a Blue Mountains Funnel-Web Spider for venom.
    Copyright © 1983-2001 Microsoft Corp. clipart http://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/media/images/funnel
  • The walls of biological cells have tiny holes that help sort DNA and RNA. Bioengineers and applied physicists have recreated human-made versions of these holes called nanopores. They hope to use nanopores to sequence DNA more quickly.
  • Snakes have a capability to see things that give off infrared light, or heat. People can only see things that are in the visible range. This means that we cannot see too well at night when not much visible light is available. We also cannot see "through" things, like being able to look through skin into the human body. However, engineers working on military technology have developed night vision goggles that enable people to see things at night using infrared light. Biomedical engineers are also applying infrared light to "see" through the skin to detect tumors in people.

Can you think of any another ways in which we could copy examples from nature to design great new products?

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Biomimicry is an engineering concept about looking to nature for ideas. Engineers are able to solve problems by mimicking natural solutions. One of the reasons that this technique works so well is that natural processes have evolved to work effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, biomimicked solutions are often environmentally sound, being copied from the natural environment, which is an important factor in today's world.

Here are some additional bimimicry examples and ideas that are being explored:

  • Aquatic animals are often shaped to minimize resistance, and evolutionarily, their shapes are why they survive in the water. Resistance can be thought of as matter resisting motion. For example, when you try to walk while in a swimming pool, it is hard to push against the water because the water is resisting the motion of getting out of your way. The bodies of many aquatic animals are hydro-dynamically shaped, meaning they have low resistance to water. This helps them swim through the water efficiently. Engineers study the shapes of these animals and apply what they learn to the design of efficient boats or other aquatic technologies.
  • Most spider venoms are toxic to insects but do not harm mammals or other vertebrates. Therefore, using the venom as a pesticide would not have the negative environmental effects of other pesticides. Genetic engineers are looking for ways to insert the genes for the spider venom into viruses that attack specific insects so only the targeted insects would die. Copying what spiders use to kill insects can help engineers produce pesticides that are safer and more effective.
  • Many of the energy sources that people use, like burning coal, produce CO2, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. CO2 is in plentiful supply and would be a great resource if people could find some use for it. Plants use CO2 as they form sugars, and engineers are looking at them to try to come up with ways in which they can use CO2.
  • Sea mussels secrete an adhesive substance that enables them to stick to almost anything in the ocean, including metals and rocks. Engineers are looking for ways to copy what mussels make to produce glue that is stronger and more waterproof than anything that has been developed thus far. Mussels also make this thread-like substance that they can stick out of their shell like a foot. The amazing thing about this thread is that it changes gradually from being like nylon on one end to being like rubber on the other end. Creating substances that change gradually could help engineers produce things that are stronger. Tires, for instance, are made by attaching rubber to metal. Most problems with tires develop because the rubber rips off the metal part. If tires could be made such that they change gradually from the hard part to the rubber part, they would be much safer.
  • The abalone shell is one of the strongest substances in the world, and it is made naturally under normal temperatures. Many of the strong materials that engineers make are produced in extremely hot temperatures, and they involve a lot of chemicals, some of which are harmful to the environment. Engineers are trying to learn from the abalone shell to safely and efficiently make extremely strong products. Furthermore, the abalone shell is made by a process of forming one extremely thin layer of protein that gets covered by a thin layer of minerals to form mother of pearl, which is thin covered by another thin layer of proteins, and the process repeats. This technique has been copied and modified by engineers to form extremely thin products such as those found in microchips.

In the book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," author Janine Benuys suggests that nature offers a sustainable living example from which humankind can learn more intelligent ways to live. According to Benuys, biomimicry-based designs should adhere to the following nine laws derived from the behavior of the natural world (write the following list on the board):

  1. Nature runs on sunlight.
  2. Nature uses only the energy it needs.
  3. Nature fits form to function.
  4. Nature recycles everything.
  5. Nature rewards cooperation.
  6. Nature banks on diversity.
  7. Nature demands local expertise.
  8. Nature curbs excesses from within.
  9. Nature taps the power of limits.


biomimicry: Copying nature to produce new things or ways of doing something.

venom: A deadly chemical that an animal or insect uses in self-defense.

Associated Activities

  • Live Like an Animal - In this activity, students design and build model shelters that are based on examples from shelters used by animals.
  • Design Inspired by Nature - Students reverse engineer a flower to glean design ideas for new "engineered" products.

Lesson Closure

Some of the best inventions come about by someone taking an existing technology and applying it in a new way. With biomimicry, engineers find those examples of existing technology in nature. As you all develop in your ability to think like engineers, it is helpful to ask yourself, "What would nature do?" and "What would nature never do?" These questions might help you develop solutions that are safer, longer lasting and more efficient.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Write their ideas on the board. Ask:

  • What products that we use may have been developed from copying nature?

Post-Introduction Assessment

Question/Answer: Ask students the following question and discuss as a class:

  • How could pesticides developed from spider venom be better than pesticides developed from chemicals? (Answer: Spider-based pesticides will not harm people and animals, and it can better target the specific insects we want to kill.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Biomimicry Boggle! Break students into groups of three to four. Give the class 2 minutes to write down as many original examples of biomimicry as they can. They should write down the example from nature as well as how that feature of the plant or animal could be used (or is being used already) by engineers to solve a human problem. At the end of two minutes, have each team read aloud their answers and write them on the board. Ask if any other teams came up with the same idea; if they do, then both/all teams have to cross that answer off their list. The team that ends up with the most "unique" ideas, wins!

Ask student groups to think about the biomimicry design guidelines (aka "laws" of nature) on the board as well as about the ideas/examples that they came up with during the Biomimicry Boggle! exercise and figure out which "laws" of nature apply to each design idea. Tell each group to pick one biomimicry design idea and on a sheet of paper list (1) the natural "laws" that apply to the design concept (2) the scientific principles behind the design (3) which traditional technologies exist that serve a similar function to the selected biomimicry design (4) ways in which the biomimicry design is or would be expected to be an improvement over traditional alternatives. Remind the students to consider impacts on human and natural systems while they compare technologies.

After 7-10 minutes, have a member of each group describe which biomimicry design they focused on and how they answered each of the four questions. After each group has presented their idea, pause and ask the class if they think the design would serve its intended function and if anyone can think of potential negative or otherwise unintended consequences associated with the idea.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students build prototypes (models) of one of the original ideas that their team came up with during the lesson summary assessment.


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

Beggs, K., Zarske, M.S., Carlson, D.W. "Biomimicry: Natural Designs" hands-on activity. 2004. University of Colorado Boulder, TeachEngineering.org. Accessed July 31, 2014. https://www.teachengineering.org/view_activity.php?url=collection/cub_/activities/cub_bio/cub_bio_lesson05_activity1.xml

Dye, Lee. For ABC News, Technology and Science, "How Snakes See Two Ways: How Snake Eyes Could Lead to Smarter Missiles and Stop Cancer," January 9, 2008. Accessed March 19, 2009. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Story?id=98115&page=1

Johnson, Dan. Discoveries, "Discovery: Spider Venom Could Yield EcoFriendly Insecticides," May 3, 2004. University of Connecticut Health Center. Accessed March 19, 2009. http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100676&org=NSF

Learning Technologies Channel, NASA Quest, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. October 21, 1997. Photo of shark. Accessed March 19, 2009. http://quest.nasa.gov/ltc/nps/images/shark.jpg


Glen Sirakavit; Megan Podlogar; Karen King; Janet Yowell


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

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


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 National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 9, 2018