Bionics by definition combines science and technology, with nature acting as a model for technical applications. Bionics is expected to lead to a better understanding of the Nature of Science (NOS). We applied a hands-on inquiry-based module about bionics with sixth graders during a public bionics exhibition in a zoological garden that allowed students to act as researchers, i.e., to understand the problem-solving process and to search for methods to overcome problems. The practice of science and engineering was at the center of this intervention; for example, students were asked to provide explanations and design solutions in the bionics field (NGSS, 2017). From this complex field we showed examples using living animals in the zoo. Our students learned bionics topics directly on the living animal by transferring them later to bionics topics. The streamlined shape of the dolphin snout, the communication system of dolphins, and other examples, each with its technical and bionics application, were examined. Bionics can serve as a complement to other biology topics. An increase in cognitive knowledge was observed both immediately after intervention and after a complete school year. Male participants showed more interest in technology than females.

Introduction

Bionics combines biology and technology to solve technological problems by using nature as a model to apply to human-made solutions (Nachtigall & Wisser, 2013).

One of the most famous bionics examples is the so-called lotus effect, where plants can keep surfaces absolutely dirt-free even when growing in dirty water: a self-cleaning mechanism using wax-coated surfaces prevents the adhesion of dirt particles in water drops rolling down plant surfaces (Barthlott & Neinhuis, 1997). That nature-inspired discovery has been applied in some para-bionics products (Barthlott et al., 2016).

Another example is the fin ray effect in fish tail fins: the structure of these fins is special in that they do not bend away when you press against the fin; rather, the fin bends toward the pressure and so could adapt optimally on the water (Freier, 2014). The arrangement and composition of the rays have recently been adopted in robotic picker arms, because of the structure and the optimal adaption to sensitive objects like eggs (Bannasch & Kniese, 2012). The fin ray effect is an adaption to living in water and could be used in teaching the general biology of fish or even the morphology of fish (NGSS, 2017).

A further example is the shark skin effect, adapted in aircraft riblets to substantially reduce air flow resistance (Bechert et al., 1997). The parallel ridges on the longitudinal body of a shark, and on an aircraft, also reduce drag (Oeffner & Lauder, 2012). The principle of reducing drag has many examples in bionics; many animals like dolphins, fish, or sharks have methods to reduce drag (Campbell et al., 2016). This principle is also often transferred to technology applications like in cars, aircrafts, or swimming suits (Dean & Bhushan, 2010).

The teaching of evolution could also include bionics: the homologous development of mammal's extremities is observable in different aquatic animals, whereas the analogous development of extremities, for example, could be seen as a bionics challenge, as different solutions for similar problems exist (Campbell et al., 2016). Animal morphology and the adaption of animals could be connected with bionics. Another example for adaption is the different skin types of aquatic animals; fish, birds, reptiles, and nearly all other animate beings found solutions to adapt to living in the water (Campbell et al., 2016).

Phenomena of nature have inspired technicians to adjust or improve technology applications by adapting effects in the technological world. Nature has always found solutions for its problems and so can be seen as a source of inspiration for bionics. Bionics can be included in many other biology curriculum topics. Promoting those innovative topics in the classroom would increase the motivation for science and technology (Neurohr & Dragomirescu, 2007). Innovative topics need innovative school learning environments, like working cooperatively, to enrich students’ perceptions.

Johnson and Johnson (1994) explained cooperative learning as forming groups of students who discuss their work. A meta-analysis of 65 studies reported considerably better cognitive achievement and higher attitude scores in cooperative learning (Kyndt et al., 2013), hence our bionics intervention focused on cooperative learning in combination with hands-on learning.

Student Objectives

We anticipate that participating students will learn to understand the procedural method of bionics, to identify bionics in general, and to know some specific examples of bionics. Bionics principles are generally represented using the Lusinus method: research of nature is based on abstraction of a biology principle, which is implemented in technical applications (Nachtigall, 2010). The principles and mechanisms of bionics require understanding the scientific background and the principle of transferability to daily lives.

Details of Intervention and Exercise

The intervention required five school lessons, which are divided into different time slots and phases. The introduction phase takes barely one school lesson and each module at least two school lessons (see Table 1). To assure similar pre-knowledge, a pre-group introductory phase was provided focusing on the basics of bionics, biology, and technology (Supplemental Material Appendix A, workbook p.4).

Table 1.
Module phases and description.
Phase of TeachingDescriptionStudents ActivityTime (min.)
Pre-group phase Introduction to bionics Teacher-guided learning 25 
Module 1
(seminar room module) 
Seminar room activity in a seminar room Hands-on learning at stations 85 
Module 2
(aquarium module) 
Aquarium activity concentrating on the living animal Hands-on learning at stations 85 
Phase of TeachingDescriptionStudents ActivityTime (min.)
Pre-group phase Introduction to bionics Teacher-guided learning 25 
Module 1
(seminar room module) 
Seminar room activity in a seminar room Hands-on learning at stations 85 
Module 2
(aquarium module) 
Aquarium activity concentrating on the living animal Hands-on learning at stations 85 

Both the seminar room and the aquarium modules were applied as hands-on stations employing cooperative learning. Teachers simply supervised from the background and only responded to student questions on request. The group-work phase was self-explanatory but guided by a work book, which the students received at the module's start. Both module parts were completed in a zoological garden (Figure 1). A list with all necessary materials for the intervention is attached (Supplemental Material Appendix J), as well as the workbook, where the students have to fill in the work orders (Supplemental Material Appendix K).

Figure 1.

Different stations of the group work seminar room module and the aquarium module. Seminar room module is also possible in a normal classroom.

Figure 1.

Different stations of the group work seminar room module and the aquarium module. Seminar room module is also possible in a normal classroom.

Different bionics examples incorporated the stream-lined shape, fin-ray effect, and skin adaptions, including the shark skin effect (Figure 2A,B).

Figure 2.

Learning in the seminar room module (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015).

Figure 2.

Learning in the seminar room module (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015).

Station Bionics Examples

An instruction sheet with a short introductory text about biology models and bionics applications described self-sharpening knives/rodents, gecko-foot/glue, lotus-effect/glasses, bird-wings/winglets, honeycomb/washing machines, bones/Eiffel tower, as well as velcro fruits/hook-and-loop fastener (Supplemental Material Appendix B, workbook p.5); 14 pictures with short captions are given, the bionics application on the right, the biology model on the left. Underneath an example is shown, the rest is attached in the Supplemental Material Appendix section.

Station Streamline Shape

Different shapes such as a bowl, a cuboid, a cube, or the streamline shape formed of wax (Figure 3) were to be arranged according to streamline adaptations (workbook p.6). For this experiment, a glass cylinder of water with several marking points was supplied, and above the cylinder, different objects were fixed consecutively (Figure 4A,B). The other side of the string was held by tension, so that the starting point of the object is in the right position (Figure 4C). Objects were then dropped into the water (Figure 4D), and a second student marked the depth each object reached (Figure 4E,F). Each experiment was repeated three times to register the deepest immersion and hence the lowest resistance (Figure 4F).

Figure 3.

Different formed objects for the streamline experiment.

Figure 3.

Different formed objects for the streamline experiment.

Figure 4.

Experimental implementation: (A) fixation tower, (B) objects fixation, (C) starting point, (D) falling of objects, (E) marking of depth, (F) measuring of depth.

Figure 4.

Experimental implementation: (A) fixation tower, (B) objects fixation, (C) starting point, (D) falling of objects, (E) marking of depth, (F) measuring of depth.

Station Fin-Ray Effect

A short information sheet about the phenomena in general and a model of the fin-ray effect was presented (Figure 5, Supplemental Material Appendix C, workbook p.11).

Figure 5.

Simplified schema of the fin-ray effect.

Figure 5.

Simplified schema of the fin-ray effect.

Three models were then presented; each model was differently constructed but all contained the fin-ray effect (Figure 6A). One model had no stabilizer, the second had one, and the third had several stabilizers. When pushing against the model (Figure 6B) with the trigger finger, students can easily recognize function of the stabilizer.

Figure 6.

(A) Three different constructed fin models. (B) Fin model with many stabilizers. (C) Model of picker arms with the fin ray effect.

Figure 6.

(A) Three different constructed fin models. (B) Fin model with many stabilizers. (C) Model of picker arms with the fin ray effect.

An example of a bionics application of this effect is seen in different picker arms in the industry. This system is also reconstructed as a model, where the students could test the picker arms by lifting a ball (Figure 6C).

Station Skin Adaption

Examples of the skins of different animals—specifically shark skin, bird feathers, or fish slime layers—illustrate adaptation strategies and bionics applications (workbook p.14). A variety of examples represent animal skin (feather, sandpaper, mucus), and drawings of the animals are to be assigned to the appropriate skin (Figure 7).

Figure 7.

Assigning animal models (fish, penguin, shark) to skin models (feather, sandpaper, mucus).

Figure 7.

Assigning animal models (fish, penguin, shark) to skin models (feather, sandpaper, mucus).

Information text (Supplemental Material Appendix D) and pictures (Figure 8) explain the bionics application of the shark skin effect.

Figure 8.

Bionics application of the shark skin effect.

Figure 8.

Bionics application of the shark skin effect.

Aquarium module.—Adaptations of living animals (dolphins, seals, fish, and manatees) were identified and observed, in particular the swimming adaption, the dolphin snout, fins, and communication skills (Figure 9A,B).

Figure 9.

Learning in the aquarium module (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015).

Figure 9.

Learning in the aquarium module (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015).

Station Swimming Adaption

A first task focused on the streamlined shape and swimming speed (workbook p.8). The fastest swimmer was identified. Additionally, students were required to define nutrition preferences, whether animals live as herbivores or carnivores.

Station Dolphin Snout

The dolphin snout was observed by completion of a drawing (Figure 10A). This drawing was to be compared with a picture of a tanker (Figure 10B).

Figure 10.

(A) Drawing of a dolphin head. (B) Bionic application of dolphin snout to the bow of a tanker.

Figure 10.

(A) Drawing of a dolphin head. (B) Bionic application of dolphin snout to the bow of a tanker.

An information text (Supplemental Material Appendix E) explained the parallel of tanker shapes and dolphin snouts as an adaption to reduce water flow drag and save energy (workbook p.9).

Fin is Not Fin

Fins of different animals had to be labeled and assigned to a living animal in the aquarium (Figure 11A,B) (workbook p.10). Students were also required to draw their own hand next to a picture of the dolphin's flapper in their guiding book to show homologies of evolution.

Figure 11.

(A) Drawing of a fish. (B) Dolphin fin.

Figure 11.

(A) Drawing of a fish. (B) Dolphin fin.

Communication under Water

This station dealt with the communication system of dolphins and its technological application in the tsunami early warning system (workbook p.12). The students could hear the voices of the dolphins in a hearing station (Figure 12A).

Figure 12.

(A) Hearing station of dolphin communication (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015). (B) Simplified schema of the tsunami early warning system.

Figure 12.

(A) Hearing station of dolphin communication (Landesamt für Umwelt, 2015). (B) Simplified schema of the tsunami early warning system.

Subsequently an information sheet (Supplemental Material Appendix F) simplified the model of the early warning system for tsunamis, showing pressure sensors on the sea bed sending information to a buoy at the ocean surface, which also uses the technology of dolphin communication (Figure 12B).

Alignment of Intervention with NGSS

The described intervention in a zoo meets several of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). All three main dimensions of the NGSS are involved: the crosscutting concepts (cause and effect), science and engineering practices (developing and using models, constructing explanations, and designing solutions), and disciplinary core ideas (information processing, energy in chemical process and everyday life) (NGSS, 2017). Participants learn about the practices of scientists and engineers in coming up with inventions in the crosscutting field of bionics. Students acquire knowledge that deepens their understanding of crosscutting concepts and broadens their ideas in different scientific fields like biology, technology, and bionics. The relationships among science, technology, society, and the environment and their influence on the natural world are central to our intervention.

Further Research Reading

Our research group also focused on different research questions with this intervention:

First, knowledge acquisition due to program participation peaked directly after and dropped six weeks later, but never fell back to pre-knowledge levels (Marth & Bogner, 2017a). Even after periods of twelve weeks and one year, this level of knowledge remained stable. We have designed a knowledge questionnaire to test the acquisition in a pre- and post-testing design (Supplemental Material Appendix G).

Secondly, motivation was assumed to be a major reason for participation: two originally hypothesized factors, intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy, merged into one, self-confidence (Marth & Bogner, 2017b) (Supplemental Material Appendix H). Self-confidence peaked directly after participation, but failed to sustain over a six-week time period. No gender differences were observed at any point. Science motivation and technology interest correlated at a low level.

Thirdly, interest in technology and the social implications of technology in different age groups was a major factor in our bionics learning module (Marth & Bogner, 2018) (Supplemental Material Appendix I). We applied an existing scale to 610 participants (students, university freshmen, and teachers) and confirmed the structure of the Technology Questionnaire (Rennie & Jarvis, 1995). Gender differences occurred in all age groups regarding interest in technology such that male participants show more interest than their female counterparts.

Conclusion

Our intervention combined biology, technology, and bionics as subjects, and applied cooperative learning in group working and station-guided learning. Our station-guided learning included a classroom module, and could be integrated in the NGSS and permitted teaching practices in school. The aquarium module is a specific outreach zoo module with living animals (dolphins and fish). The students enjoyed the field days in the zoo and acquired knowledge and science motivation, as Marth & Bogner (2017a,b,c) have shown. Finally, we think that this intervention or variations of it should be available to different classrooms and for all types of students.

We are grateful to the BIONICUM for assistance in cooperation with schools and to all teachers and students for participation. We also thank the Bavarian Ministry of Education (Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Bildung und Kultus, Wissenschaft und Kunst) for permitting the study (X.7-BO4106/453/9, 03.02.2015). Financial support was granted by the LfU (Landesamt für Umwelt) and the CREATIONS Project (European Union Grant Agreement No. 665917) as well as by the University of Bayreuth.

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Supplementary data