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Biomimicry: Natural Designs

Grade Level: 5 (3-6)
Group Size: 2
Time Required: 50 minutes

Summary: 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.

Engineering Connection:
Engineers often use the natural world as inspiration for design. Biologically inspired designs include air- and sea-going vessels, navigation tools such as sonar and radar, medical imaging devices, biomedical technologies like prosthetics, and water and pollution treatment processes. Biomimicry has resulted in many creative products, such as a materials inspired by the slick leaves of the lotus plant and its natural capacity to wash away dirt particles with every rainfall, and the Velcro hook-and-loop system inspired by the prickly plant burrs that stick to our clothes.

Materials List

Each student needs:

-Markers or colored pencils


Does anyone know what the word “biomimicry” means? Let’s break down the word into more understandable parts. “Bio” means life and “mimicry” means to imitate. So, biomimicry means to imitate life or nature. Who has heard the expression, “Nature knows best”? Well, biomimicry is a way of learning from nature. It is a way to observe nature in action and use that knowledge to inspire new ideas. Engineers often use these ideas to develop cool new products or better ways to do things to help people. Today we are going to learn all about biomimicry and how engineers look at the amazing characteristics of animals and plants to create new or improved product designs.

Can anyone think of an example of biomimicry? Think of something that has been designed with nature in mind. How about Velcro®? Velcro® was invented after a man took a very close look at those little prickly seeds that stick to your clothing when you walk though a field. Water filters are designed like animal cell membranes that let certain things pass through while others are kept out. Also, though planes do not flap their wings like birds, their shapes and the principles of keeping a plane in flight are the same as bird wings. People have also created adhesives that mimic the fascinating and sticky surface of gecko or lizard’s five-toed feet. Did you know that? Radar and sonar navigation technology as well as medical imaging was inspired by the echo-location abilities of bats. Also, the solar cells that make up solar panels are designed to mimic the way leaves collect energy from the sun.


More on Biomimicry

People have called on nature’s inspiration throughout humans’ history. By observing animals, plants and natural processes, we gain insight into what works and what does not. For engineers, these observations are helpful in both the design process and inspiring new inventions using natural technologies. There are many examples of biomimicry, with one of the most well-known being Velcro®, a product designed to behave like the cockleburs that stick to animals (and people) when they brush by the plant. For more examples, see the list below as well as the resources in the References section.

Example inventions based on or inspired by animals:

-Airplanes modeled after birds (wing and body shapes, falcon beak)
-Morphing airplane wings that change shape according to the speed and length of a flight, inspired by birds that have differently-shaped wings depending on how fast they fly
-Fish-inspired scales that easily slide over each other to enable the morphing airplane wings
-Boat hulls designed after the shapes of Fish
-Torpedoes that swim like tuna
-Submarine and boats hull material that imitates dolphin and shark skin membranes
-Radar and sonar navigation technology and medical imaging inspired by the echo-location abilities of bats
-Swimsuit, triathlon and bobsled clothing fabric made with woven ribbing and texture to reduce drag while maintaining movement, mimics shark’s skin

Before the Activity
-Gather materials.
-Review the list of biomimicry inventions above, or if desired, research additional examples.

With the Students

1. Divide the class into pairs of students.
2. Ask the pairs to list three things both students have as common interests. These interests can be anything; examples: sports equipment, music, clothes, games, furniture, cars, etc.
3. Next, have the students agree on one of those common interests for their design topic area.
4. Tell the students they have 10 minutes to brainstorm with their partners to come up with possible ideas for designs within their interest topic using biomimicry of animals. Ask the students if they can think of any animals that remind them of their topic. What unique features do those animals have? How could they design something that uses those features? Remind students that this type of brainstorming and building on each other’s ideas is an important step in engineering a new, innovative product.
5. As necessary, remind students of the brainstorming guidelines:

-No negative comments allowed.
-Encourage wild ideas.
-All ideas are recorded.
-Stay focused on topic.
-One conversation at a time.
-Build on the ideas of others.

6. Pass out paper, rulers, markers and colored pencils to the students.
7. Give the students 20 minutes to design and draw their new product that uses biomimicry. Have students be as detailed as possible. Ask them to label parts and materials in their design.
8. Once they have finished design, have each team make a list of the special features of their design and which animal(s) inspired those features.
9. Mount the drawing and design features onto a piece of construction paper.
10. If time, have students role-play engineering companies and present their biomimicry designs to the class. Post their completed designs in the classroom or school resource center to share with others.
Troubleshooting Tips

If students have difficulty coming up with a design idea, help to steer them with suggestions. Or, assign a common class design area topic, such as sporting equipment or playground toys. After individual team presentations, have the class vote for the best design — the one they would choose to invest in if they were paying clients.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Define it! Ask the class: What is biomimicry? Break down the word to help students guess at its meaning. “Bio” means life and “mimicry” means to imitate, so, “biomimicry” means to imitate life or nature, specifically to help design products and systems for human use. Once the class has come to a consensus, ask volunteers to suggest examples.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Thinking through the Design: Ask the students to identify which feature(s) of their design are inspired by nature. If possible, have them be specific about what type of animal or plant they are mimicking and have them describe inspiration (plant or animal characteristics, etc.).

Is It Biomimicry? Give examples of design ideas, some that are biomimicry and some that are not. Have students vote whether or not they think the designs involve biomimicry. If the design does include biomimicry, as for a volunteer to explain the natural world source of inspiration. Examples include:

-Airplane wing? (Answer: Yes, after bird wings.)
-iPod? (Answer: No)
-Sonar navigation? (Answer: Yes, after bats.)
-Computer printer? (Answer: No)
-Hard coatings for car windshields? (Answer: Yes, after abalone mussels’ mother of pearl coating.)
-Hulls of submarines? (Answer: Yes, after dolphin and shark skins.)
-Soft cushion for a chair? (Answer: No)
-Solar cell? (Answer: Yes, after leaves.)

Activity Extensions

Have students investigate an existing product that was inspired by nature. Require that they draw the product and describe the design features. For extra credit, have them provide creative ideas on how the product could be made even better.

In addition to learning from nature’s animals and plants, we can learn from its processes and cycles. Ask students to think of the many natural closed loop cycles, such as the food chain, water cycle, hydrogen cycle, etc., which are models that recycle endlessly, providing long-term sustainability. Ask them to think of a way that people could do something better by mimicking a natural process or cycle. Hint: There is no waste in nature. Take a new look at pollution and manufacturing waste as a sign of inefficiency and source of unused resources.

As suggested by Janine Benuys in her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, nature provides us with a sustainable living example from which people can learn smarter ways to live. Provide students with nature’s seven “rules” (see Procedure: Background section) and ask them to pick one and brainstorm how following that rule might lead to ways we could engineer more sustainable way of life for humans.

Reinforce math skills and help students learn more about scale drawing and engineering design. Have students imagine new engineering products and practice drawing their designs on graph paper to scale by assigning each grid square a real-life measurement value (such as cm or m).

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

Katherine Beggs, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson

Copyright: © 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado. The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0226322. 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.

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