(Lesson adapted from TeachEngineering.org and the Biomimicry Institute.)
In this activity, students discover how engineers can use biomimicry to enhance their designs. They learn how careful observation of nature — in this case, reverse engineering a flower to glean design ideas — can lead to new innovations and products.
Grade level: 6 -8
Time: 50 minutes
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.
International Technology Education Association
- E. Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems. [Grades 6 - 8]
- F. Design involves a set of steps, which can be performed in different sequences and repeated as needed. [Grades 6 - 8]
Common Core State Standards for Mathematics
1. Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities. For example, “The ratio of wings to beaks in the bird house at the zoo was 2:1, because for every 2 wings there was 1 beak.” “For every vote candidate A received, candidate C received nearly three votes.” (Grade 6)
a. Develop a uniform probability model by assigning equal probability to all outcomes, and use the model to determine probabilities of events. For example, if a student is selected at random from a class, find the probability that Jane will be selected and the probability that a girl will be selected. [Grade 7]
5. Describe qualitatively the functional relationship between two quantities by analyzing a graph (e.g., where the function is increasing or decreasing, linear or nonlinear). Sketch a graph that exhibits the qualitative features of a function that has been described verbally. [Grade 8]
Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Standards
- 2.4 Identify appropriate materials, tools, and machines needed to construct a prototype of a given engineering design. [Grades 6 - 8] 
- 4.2 Explain and give examples of the impacts of interchangeable parts, components of mass-produced products, and the use of automation, e.g., robotics. [Grades 6 - 8]
For each team:
- 1-2 flowers (lilies or sunflowers work best)
- Tools to reverse engineer the flower (i.e., toothpicks, tweezers, cutting object)
- 1 magnifying glass
- 1 sheet of blank paper
- markers or colored pencils
- 1 copy of the Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet (.pdf)
- 1 plastic bag to store the flower components (if activity is completed over more than one day)
Engineers may also use biomimicry to come up with designs and products that have never before existed. For example, geckos (like the blue-tailed day gecko in the photo, right) 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. (Note: many more case studies can be found at the Biomimicry Institute.)
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, identifing 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 engineer 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.
Copyright © Malinda Zarske, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder.
- Gather materials.
- Make copies of the Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet.
- Review the above examples of biomimicry (more examples can be found through resources listed in the Reference section).
- 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 this “Listening to Nature” Pre-Assessment Activity before conducting the main activity. This helps set the stage for the reverse engineering challenge.
Listening to Nature: Take students outside and have them close their eyes. Instruct 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 have to get out of our human mindset and into the mindset of other organisms. As humans, we use our eyes a lot. Other animals use more of their other senses to tell 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? Stress the idea that careful observation of nature — becoming a “nature detective” — can lead to new designs and products.
3. Divide the class into groups of 2-3 students.
4. Give each group an Exploring Biomimicry 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 (see section below) before passing out materials.
6. Give each group a set of reverse engineering tools (i.e., toothpicks, tweezers, cutting object, magnifying glass and plastic baggie).
7. Allow students to begin reverse engineering their flower. Make sure the groups are following their Exploring Biomimicry Worksheet which outlines the following four steps:
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 be solving 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?
Part II: Product Design
1. Once the students are finished reverse engineering the flower, ask them to brainstorm potential new products based on what they observed while reverse engineering the flower. 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 ten minutes. Encourage them to write down or draw everyone’s ideas generated during the brainstorming process.
3. Ask the groups to choose one final product to present to the class.
Copyright © Lauren Cooper, University of Colorado at Boulder, ITL Program.
4. Give each group another ten minutes to develop the idea for their final product; ask them to make sketches and notes about their product on a fresh sheet of paper.
5. Ask each group to present their product to the rest of the class. If groups feel comfortable, they could draw their idea on the white/chalkboard and answer other teams’ questions about their product.
6. After all groups have presented, lead the Post-Assessment Activity with the students.
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?”
Janine Benyus, TED Talks director, wants inventors to ask how nature solves a problem. Watch her Biomimicry in Action lecture:
- What is biomimicry? (Answer: Biomimicry studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs to solve human problems or to come up with materials and products that have never before existed.)
- Can you think of anything that is based on or inspired by nature? (Possible answers: airplane – based on birds; Velcro® – based on cockleburs; solar panels – based on photosynthesis in 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.)
- Can you think of a time when you took something apart and learned more about it by studying its pieces? (Possible 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.”)
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 your students to create a Call to Action! poster about their favorite animal or plant. 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 humans can do to help keep this species alive. This activity extension would work well with the Post-Activity Assessment.
For younger students:
Complete the reverse engineering challenge as a class. Verbally walk them through the Exploring Biomimicry 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 artifact for the reverse engineering challenge. This will add variety to the products inspired from nature.
Contributors: Lauren Cooper, Malinda Zarske, Janet Yowell, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering. Copyright© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado.