Lesson: Designing a Sustainable Guest Village in the Saguaro National Park

Contributed by: VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University

A photograph of the Sonoran Desert landscape shows rugged mountains, scrubby bushes and tall, multi-armed cacti.
Saguaro National Park in Arizona
Copyright © 2006 Wendy J. Holmgren, Vanderbilt University


Students are challenged to design a permanent guest village within the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The design must provide a true desert experience to visitors while emphasizing sustainable design, protection of the natural environment, and energy and resource conservation. To successfully address and respond to this challenge, students must acquire an understanding of desert ecology, environmental limiting factors, species adaptations and resource utilization. Following the introduction, students generate ideas and consider the knowledge required to complete the challenge. The lectures and activities that follow serve to develop this level of comprehension. To introduce the concepts of healthy ecosystems, biomimetics and the importance of sustainable environmental design, students watch three video clips of experts. These clips provide direction for student research and challenge design solutions.

Engineering Connection

Biomimicry, the study of and design application of nature's evolved systems, generates ideas for new medicines, super-strong materials and earth-friendly approaches to design. Students are presented with the challenge of designing a park facility that addresses and incorporates these same concepts as they relate to a desert environment. Students are asked to think as environmental engineers, while integrating with the fields of architectural, biological systems, transportation, and manufacturing engineering. Students come to grasp the value of industry and urban mimetic designs to assure protection of global resources, minimization of human impact and conservation of nonrenewable resources.

Pre-Req Knowledge

A basic understanding of biotic and abiotic interactions within a natural community.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain the challenge problem.
  • Understand the basic emphasis of biomimicry and sustainable design.
  • List what information might be needed to answer the challenge.
  • Group together similar areas of knowledge needed for approaching their presentation.

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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.

  • Identify the design problem to solve and decide whether or not to address it. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify criteria and constraints and determine how these will affect the design process. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Science concepts. The student recognizes multiple forms of energy and knows the impact of energy transfer and energy conservation in everyday life. The student is expected to: (Grades 9 - 10) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above


The desert is often viewed by those unfamiliar with it as a lifeless and stark landscape. Closer inspection reveals that despite extreme environmental conditions, life abounds and often with unique and highly successful adaptations shown by these organisms. These adaptations support their existence in ways that science is gaining greater appreciation for. The study of these organisms and their balanced, highly functional ecosystems is viewed as a resource for engineering design of sustainable products and community models. Just how do these organisms survive and how might humans be able to learn from these highly evolved systems? Why do cacti have ribs and where do animals go in the heat of the day? Who are the members of the community and how is this complicated food web balanced? Can we as humans model our behaviors and practices to live as efficiently as these desert species? Are we able to do so without depleting resources and generating pollution? How closely could we mimic their "lifestyles"?

The Sonoran Desert encompasses more than 100,000 square miles in two countries and five states. It has more than 60 endemic species of mammals, 350 bird species, and 200 plant species. You are asked to consider the special requirements of building within the Saguaro National Park, located outside of Tucson, Arizona. The current park boundary includes more than 91,000 acres and is a protected area.

During this unit of study, we will work through solving a challenge question. Through this unit, we will learn by classroom lecture, but also by applying what we have learned to solve a design challenge. Why are ecological processes important to study, and once studied, where is the importance of this understanding? We will begin our unit with Generating Ideas, considering what we already know and what we need to learn in order to solve the challenge. Then we will hear Multiple Perspectives from professionals specializing in the area of our interest. Hearing the thoughts of professionals stimulates and better defines our initial thoughts! Then we begin the Reseach and Revise phase during which we study food chains, predator-prey relationships, population ecology and species adaptations.These relationships are critical to our design strategy. A test to evaluate your success in comprehending these concepts constitutes the Test your Mettle step of this learning cycle. Finally, your teams will Go Public with your engineering solution by presenting your park village design via a PowerPoint® presentation!

Your engineering design challenge question:

The Saguaro National Park, located within the Sonoran Desert, is accepting bid designs for consideration in the construction of a permanent guest village within the park boundaries. The park administration states that this design must incorporate 10 permanent guest structures for overnight accommodations on a three-acre site located within a central, isolated region of the park. The administration's intent is to provide a true desert experience for the park guests. They specify that these bids must emphasize sustainable design, energy and resource conservation, while continuing to provide for the protection of the natural environment and species of the area. Your architectural firm wants to be awarded this bid. What design strengths will make the committee choose your work? At this point in the design process, cost does not need to be considered. Your main goal is to create a sustainable village that does not greatly affect the natural environment of the Sonoran Desert.

Towards the end of this class period, you will gather with your team and begin to organize your thoughts. You will create PowerPoint® slides to present your ideas. Good luck!

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Legacy Cycle Information

This lesson covers the Challenge, Generating Ideas, and Multiple Perspectives phases of the legacy cycle. After being introduced to the challenge question, students begin to brainstorm ideas and organize the information they deem necessary to solve the challenge. This constitutes the Generate Ideas phase of the cycle. Next, students get input from three professionals in order to help guide their learning (the Multiple Perspectives phase). In the next lesson, students begin the Research and Revise phase in which they learn about population dynamics through the study of food webs, species interactive relationships, desert biome characteristics, carrying capacity, limiting factors, and adaptations. The final aspect of this section introduces students to biomimicry and begins to expose them to its applications with sustainable design, as needed to solve the challenge question.

Lecture Information

Begin by introducing students briefly to the legacy cycle and the way in which they will learn the concepts of sustainable design. This helps them understand why they are going through each phase of the cycle.

Next, complete the associated activity, Designing a Winning Guest Village in the Saguaro National Park. Read the challenge question aloud to the class. Using the first three slides in PowerPoint Lesson 1 Supplement, show them a map of the Saguaro National Park and the landscape pictures of the Sonoran Desert. Begin with students working alone to record their personal thoughts and ideas by answering the "generate ideas" question on the handout. After an adequate amount of time, generate a class list on the board of concepts which must be considered to solve the challenge question. Next, ask students to generate a list of knowledge areas and categorize the concepts they have listed into these knowledge areas. Work with students until they begin discussing various resource limitations in the desert, such as water, temperature control, suitable building materials, road accessibility, etc. Lead students toward discussing the impact of these resources on the endemic species they are required to protect.

After ideas have been generated, have students listen to the three experts address issues related to the depth of their challenge question. Conclude by modifying or adding to the list already on the board based on what they have just heard. For more detailed information on the Sonoran Desert, direct students a website that provides information regarding plants and animals found in the Sonoran Desert in addition to detailed climate information: http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/sonoran_desert.htm

Ask the Experts

Begin with the video clip of renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson as he discusses the importance and balance of ecosystems. This introduces students to the concept of nature as a functioning entity that, minus human disturbances, tends to remain healthy. This interview is contained within the documentary Natural Connections. Purchasing information is provided. If this clip is not available, direct students to the WWF website pertaining to ecological balance: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/teacher_resources/webfieldtrips/ecological_balance/. Let them to explore this website to gain more information on the importance of natural balance within ecosystems.

The next expert is Janine Benyus, the author of Biomimicry. In this clip she introduces the concept of biomimetics and how nature provides a wealth of information about design and efficiency. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n77BfxnVlyc. If this clip is not available, direct students to the National Geographic article, Biomimetics: Design By Nature by Tom Mueller, found at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/04/biomimetics/tom-mueller-text, which discusses the future of engineering based on current biomimetics-based projects.

The final expert is Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton University's president. She discusses the importance of using engineering to address problems within our societies, but stresses the need to integrate sustainable design as it relates to the principles of the environment and relationships of chemistry and biology.

http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S21/43/38I71/ If this clip is not available, direct students to the University of Queensland paper on sustainable design at http://www.aaee.com.au/conferences/papers/2005/Paper/Paper143.pdf.

Additional expert testimony is also available through the interviews provided by Princeton faculty in the school of engineering. http://giving.princeton.edu/priorities/engineering/.

Associated Activities

  • Designing a Winning Guest Village in the Saguaro National Park - Students teams design a village to be built in the Saguaro National Park with biomimicry and sustainability in mind. Introduce this activity after Lesson 1, even though student groups do not present until the end of the unit so they can incorporate what they learn into the final design. During the activity, go over the provided design grading rubric with students (which will be graded at unit end).



Following the expert clips, ask students to revise or add to their earlier lists on the board. Ask them what new considerations they now have in approaching their challenge question.

Additional Multimedia Support

"Natural Connections" DVD. Available for purchase at: http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/natcon.html


A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, (2000) Arizona – Sonoran Desert Museum, Edited by Steven J. Phillips & Patricia Wentworth Comus, 1-2.

Saguaro National Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. http://www.nps.gov/sagu/


Wendy J. Holmgren; Megan Johnston; Amber Spolarich


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

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: September 5, 2017