eGFI - Dream Up the Future Sign-up for The Newsletter  For Teachers Online Store Contact us Search
Read the Magazine
What's New?
Explore eGFI
Engineer your Path About eGFI
Overview Lesson Plans Class Activities Outreach Programs Web Resources Special Features K-12 Education News
  • Tag Cloud

  • What’s New?

  • Pages


  • RSS Comments

  • Archives

  • Meta

Designing Desert Digs

This design challenge is the first part of a four-lesson Sustainable Design and Biomimicry in a Desert System unit developed by Vanderbilt University’s bioengineering program. The associated activities culminate in a PowerPoint presentation by each team. 


High school students study the desert ecology and then design a permanent guest village within the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Their designs must provide a true desert experience for visitors while emphasizing sustainable design, protecting the natural environment, and conserving energy and resources.

Grade level: 9-12

Time: 45 minutes, plus several weeks for teams to prepare and present their prototypes

Engineering Connection

This lesson introduces students to the engineering concept of sustainable design. In the course of their research, they will have an opportunity to evaluate solar energy systems, transportation issues, heating and cooling systems, and water conservation. They will be forced to weigh the choice of building materials against manufacturing processes and insulation features. As they are introduced to the concepts of species and their successful adaptations, they will direct their research to desert species and look for clues for promoting comfort in this harsh environment, developing this village with an eye toward low impact and engineering marvel.

Learning objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Apply their background knowledge to begin solving the challenge.
  • Define and explain the importance of sustainable design.
  • Explain the role biomimicry has for design implementation.
  • Understand the importance of designing cities and manufacturing products in ways that mimic the way natural systems minimize energy use and recycle products into new, usable forms.

Learning standards

Next Generation Science Standards

  • Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

International Technology and Engineering Educators Association

  • Evaluate the design solution using conceptual, physical, and mathematical models at various intervals of the design process in order to check for proper design and to note areas where improvements are needed.
  • Develop and produce a product or system using a design process.
  • Evaluate final solutions and communicate observation, processes, and results of the entire design process, using verbal, graphic, quantitative, virtual, and written means, in addition to three-dimensional models.


  • Pen and paper for brainstorming ideas with team members
  • Internet access, to view the following video clips:

Natural Connections video clip of renowned Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson as he discusses the importance and balance of ecosystems.

Jane Benyus TED Talk clip introducing the concept of biomimetics and how nature provides a wealth of information about design and efficiency.

National Park Service information on Saguaro National Park


Click HERE for teacher’s supplementary PowerPoint presentation on desert ecology.

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 organisms with unique and highly successful adaptations that 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.

Design ChallengeThe 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!Tucson deert eco-village:



This activity introduces students to the topics that we will begin to cover in greater depth over the days to follow. Students should formulate new and deeper questions as the lessons advance. Competition can be heightened by telling the students that their bid designs will be judged and the winning team’s bid will be awarded some recognition deemed appropriate.

A student-generated PowerPoint presentation [click HERE for PDF version] is provided to assist teachers in understanding the range of topics that students may choose to present from. It is meant only to be illustrative.

Plan on 45 minutes to introduce the challenge and activity, and place students into groups of four. Then have students continue to work with their team members for the next several weeks, preparing their final designs in the form of a PowerPoint presentation—which concludes the Go Public portion of the design process. Click here for presentation grading rubric.

Before the Activity

This activity does not require any special preparation or handouts. A grading rubric is provided for the students’ Go Public PowerPoint presentations.

With the Students 

Image: University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Solar Decathlon 2013 entry.

You have just listened to three leading experts in the field of ecology, biomimicry, and the societal need for sustainable design. Your design solution must encompass aspects from each of these areas. Your group should begin by asking yourselves what is unique about the area of this construction. What is distinctive about a desert compared with building in one of our other national parks? What species live there and how do we guarantee their protection? Is it important to understand their needs? Are they able to survive in this locale due to any special adaptations and do those adaptations suggest any particular approaches for our design concept? Begin a list of these questions and your initial responses. Your list will grow and shift as we complete the lessons of this module. Continue to modify it and let this be the stimulus of your research efforts. This is just the beginning of a much larger activity. At this stage, you will begin combining any knowledge you currently have to help solve this challenge by brainstorming with your team members. You will continue to receive more information throughout the following activities and lessons which will aid you in finding a resolution to the challenge question.

  1. Describe the activity by presenting the introduction for the activity as discussed above.
  2. Divide them into teams of four.
  3. Explain that they will work on their challenges over the length of this module and that it will culminate in their creating a PowerPoint presentation presented as an actual bid from the architectural firm that they represent.
  4. Go over the grading rubric with the students.

Investigating Questions

  1. How does a desert differ from other regions of the U.S.?
  2. What special conditions do you identify with a desert?
  3. Will these conditions need special attention in the design of your guest village?
  4. Identify products and building technologies that have been marketed as “sustainable” and/or “green.” Evaluate the effectiveness of these products and technologies in a desert climate.


Grade students’ final projects by using the rubric.

Activity Scaling

For lower grades, provide direction for their research sources.

Additional resources


Wendy J. Holmgren; Megan Johnston; Amber Spolarich

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering Research Experiences for Teachers Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University

© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2006 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: March 7, 2018

Submit a Comment

By clicking the "Submit" button you agree to the eGFI Privacy Policy.