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Live Like an Animal

(Lesson courtesy of and the Biomimicry Institute)


In this activity, middle school students design an innovative human shelter inspired and informed by an animal habitat. Each group is assigned an animal class and must gather information about its shelters. After researching the topic and brainstorming ideas, student teams build small prototypes (models) of the structures and present their work, explaining what attribute of the animal structure influenced their design.

Grade Level: 6 – 8

Time: 120 minutes

Learning Outcomes

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Use the engineering design process to invent a product.
  • Research types of shelters used by vertebrate animals of the same class.
  • Identify features of animal shelters that can inform human shelter design.


Next Generation Science Standards

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]

Common Core State Mathematics Standards

Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures, including computing actual lengths and areas from a scale drawing and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale. [Grade 7]

International Technology Education Association

  • E. Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems.
  • J. Make two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of the designed solution.

Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering

  • 2.1 Identify and explain the steps of the engineering design process, i.e., identify the need or problem, research the problem, develop possible solutions, select the best possible solution(s), construct a prototype, test and evaluate, communicate the solution(s), and redesign.
  • 2.5 Design features and cost limitations affect the construction of a prototype.
  • 3. Plant and animal cells have similarities and differences in their major organelles.
  • 15. Dead plants and animals are broken down by other living organisms, which contributes to the system as a whole.


Each group needs:

Day 1:

Day 2:

  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Tape
  • Miscellaneous building materials: Paperboard (e.g., cereal box), cardboard, construction paper, plastic cups, tin foil, paperclips, string.

Allow students to request up to two additional materials after completing their designs. They will have to specify item and quantity clearly.


Beijing Olympics stadium

When you were younger, did you ever build a fort out of pillows or tree branches or scrap cardboard? Can you think of an example from nature that may have resembled your fort? To which animal structure was it similar? (Possible answers: A bat’s cave or a bird’s nest) When engineers use examples from the natural world to influence their design, we call this biomimicry. Today you’re going to design a human structure that is based on an example from the animal kingdom. Your group will chose a vertebrate class and research ways in which animals of that class find or build their own shelters. Using the information, you will design a human structure that incorporates some of the useful features of the animal shelter.  Suppose you chose the vertebrate class Aves, which includes all birds. Your group would research how different types of birds build their nest and what some of the great features of the nest are. What do you think some of the advantages of a nest might be? (Possible answers: lightweight, strong, sheds moisture, protects from predators, made from readily available building supplies, etc.) OK, now let’s think of how we could build a human shelter that has some similarity to a bird’s nest. Any ideas? (Solicit responses. Probe with questions like “What is a situation in which a person might want to make a structure out of twigs and mud?”) In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the architects and structural engineers who built the main stadium designed it to look like an enormous bird’s nest. It will be fun to see where your imaginations take you with this project!


On the first day, students complete the initial stages of design. On the second day, they build prototypes (small models) of their shelters.

seabird dwelling

Before assigning this project, in your class you should:

  • Prepare resources for students to gather information on animal classification. This could include reserving computers with Internet access and/or providing reference books.
  • Gather materials for building prototypes.
  • Print enough copies of the Design Your Animal Shelter so that each student has one copy.
  • Visit a nearby hobby store to familiarize yourself with the materials available (or have items already selected that students may chose from for their alternative building supplies).

With the Students

Day 1

1. Engineering Teams: Divide class into groups of 3 or 4 students and hand out one copy of the Design Your Animal Shelter Worksheet to each group.

2. Define the Problem: Have groups each pick a class of animal from the vertebrate subphylum (from Palomar College). Try to encourage a range of choices, so that groups do not all end up researching the same animal. Each group should record their choice on the Design Your Animal Shelter Worksheet.

3. Gather Information: Have students gather information about the animal class that they have chosen and record their findings on their Design Your Animal Shelter Worksheet. They can use the Internet or books that you have provided to research the shelters used by animals. As they take notes, have students write down advantages and disadvantages of various features.

4. Brainstorming: After gathering information, groups should brainstorm ideas for human shelters or structures that they could design. The ideas should relate to the animal class they have chosen and the information that they have gathered about that class. Remind them that as long as their brainstorming is focused on the topic, they should follow these guidelines:

  • No negative comments.
  • Encourage wild ideas.
  • Record all ideas.
  • Build on the ideas of others.
  • Stay focused on the topic.
  • Only one conversation at a time.

5. Select Design: Have students pick a design from their list of ideas.

6. Sketch: Ask students to sketch a picture of the shelter that they have chosen to design. The sketch should include dimensions. You might want them to include both the real dimensions (as if it were to be built at full scale) and the dimensions of the scaled prototype.

7. Prototype Materials: Have students write down what materials they need to build a prototype (scaled model) of their design. In addition to the provided materials, you can offer to buy them up to $3 worth of additional supplies at a craft store. (Alternatively, have them buy/find materials and bring to class.)

8. Group Name: As a closure for the first day, have each group come up with a team name and a name for their structure.

Between Day 1 and Day 2

Review the collected worksheets, and give feedback to each group as time permits.

Day 2

1. Remind students that during the last class, they started to design structures that were based on animal shelters found in nature. Explain that today they are entering the last few stages of the design process. They will be building prototypes and presenting them to the class.

2. Distribute materials for each group and have them start building prototypes. Give students a time deadline and explain that they will have to stop building at this time. Finish the activity with presentations. Encourage teams to include brief explanations of the design features, the problems they solve, and the inspirations for these features.

Safety Issues

Use of scissors and hot glue may require some supervision. Preface the activity with behavior expectations for all students.

Troubleshooting tips from The White Mountain School’s experience, which developed a biomimetic shelter activity as part of a biomimicry class in 2008. (For details, see the Biomimicry Institute’s curricula page.)

  • There wasn’t enough prior experience using the biomimetic design process. Build in more practice ahead of time.
  • Due to the lack of knowledge of the design process the class did not stick to the process as they should have.  Provide review of each step of the design process as students are heading into that step of their shelter design.
  • Difficulty accessing resources: Some locations had more information available about them than others.
  • Provide opportunity for reflection on the final design of the project – what are the obvious design flaws, how realistic is it with current technologies, etc.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, consider adding more constraints to the structure. For example, students could be asked to determine what their inventions will be made from if they were to mass produce the structures. Alternatively, they could design their shelters such that they can be disassembled and recycled. If students have some physics background, they could be required to study the stability of their structures by doing an analysis of the static forces.

For lower grades, instead of having students complete the research themselves, the instructor could provide descriptions of types of shelters used by animals.

For middle or high school students, include a literacy assignment: Have students write a defense of their designs, including the following elements:  Location description (climate, topography, ecology, and geology); Problem definition (what problems does this specific location require that you solve to have an effective shelter); Observation and Abstraction (what models from nature solve your group’s defined problems); How did you apply the lessons learned from nature in your shelter design; Reflection (what are the design flaws in your shelter0; Explanation (how realistic would it be to build this shelter given current technologies and costs?)

Contributors: Christopher Valenti, Karen King, Janet Yowell, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder. © 2009 by by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Classification of Living Things website created and maintained by Dr. Dennis O’Neil, Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, Calif.

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