Biomimicry, the process of using nature to guide innovative thinking and development, can be useful in helping students grasp scientific concepts. Teachers interested in incorporating biomimicry into lesson plans might find that experiential learning at informal science institutions (ISIs) with natural models and artifacts is a valuable tool to accompany classroom learning. Visiting these ISIs, students have the opportunity to observe nature in real time and be immersed in inspiration. As students explore these natural models in habitats and exhibits, educators might ask students to consider the interesting features they observe and to creatively consider innovative designs that these features could inspire. For example, an elephant’s trunk might inspire a robotic arm. These direct experiences at ISIs might draw upon students’ innate biophilia to learn more about living organisms and lead to increased creativity and design output. I developed this guide based on my experiences as an informal biomimicry educator and my 2017 keynote address presented at the Annual Docent Conference at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Introduction

Informal science institutions (ISIs) can make scientific knowledge accessible to general audiences, including K–12 school groups. School field trips can be time-constrained as educators try to fit the experience and learning into the hours of a school day, plus transportation to and from the ISI. Given this relatively short timeframe, having prepared information on relevant, interesting topics is ideal for engaging students, while also promoting learning. Biomimicry, as a problem-based learning activity incorporating nature, is a topic of interest and relevance to many ISIs related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Drawing on the multidisciplinary aspect of the biomimicry design process, participants of varying skill sets, interests, and ages can connect to nature’s intrinsic and instrumental value. This article provides a knowledge base for educators to introduce biomimicry to students in time-limited circumstances, to inspire students to more fully develop designs inspired by nature upon returning to the classroom.

“Biomimicry is a design process inspired by nature to drive innovation and improve our current methods of product design, manufacturing, and life cycle.”

Biomimicry is a design process inspired by nature to drive innovation and improve our current methods of product design, manufacturing, and life cycle (Benyus, 1997). The forms, patterns, functions, systems, processes, and behaviors of nature inspire us to develop environmentally friendly products and processes in an ecologically sustainable manner, as well as to improve upon existing methods. Our innate curiosity about life drives us to learn more and emulate living things (Snyder, 2018).

Top-down or Bottom-up Design

There are two ways to approach the biomimicry design process: top-down and bottom-up (see Figure 1). In the top-down approach, an interdisciplinary team defines a problem, considers potential solutions, and identifies solutions found in nature. The bottom-up approach begins when a designer observes an interesting characteristic of an organism or ecosystem, realizes a potential application for invention, and creates (or improves) a product or process based on the organism’s or ecosystem’s interesting feature.

Figure 1.

Biomimicry design process.

Figure 1.

Biomimicry design process.

For an example of the top-down approach to biomimicry, consider vaccine storage in third-world countries. Some vaccinations require refrigeration to remain viable, refrigeration typically requires electricity, and electricity is severely limited in areas that desperately need vaccines. Several companies looked to nature for solutions: what species survive dehydration and how do they do it? Water bears (tardigrades) and brine shrimp (including Artemia salina) can withstand dehydration for extended periods (on the magnitude of years) (see Figure 2). Using a sugar molecule (e.g., trehalose, sucrose, glucose) in place of a water molecule, these organisms maintain structural integrity until exposed to water again (Iturriaga et al., 2009; Farrant et al., 2015; Boothby et al., 2017). Students are excited by this concept once they realize that “Sea Monkeys” (brine shrimp) have the same capability to withstand desiccation (Rothschild & Mancinelli, 2001).

Figure 2.

Clockwise from top left: tardigrade species (Milnesium tardigradum) as observed under scanning electron microscopy; HyDRIS vaccine stabilization technology (the shelf-stable, dehydrated vaccine is encased in the cartridge and stored until ready to use; immediately prior to use, the cartridge is attached to a fluid-filled syringe that activates the vaccine upon administration to the patient); and brine shrimp (Artemia salina). Photo credits: Wikimedia (tardigrade); Nova Laboratories, Ltd. (HyDRIS); and Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons (brine shrimp). Permission for use of HyDRIS image received from Nova Laboratories, Ltd.

Figure 2.

Clockwise from top left: tardigrade species (Milnesium tardigradum) as observed under scanning electron microscopy; HyDRIS vaccine stabilization technology (the shelf-stable, dehydrated vaccine is encased in the cartridge and stored until ready to use; immediately prior to use, the cartridge is attached to a fluid-filled syringe that activates the vaccine upon administration to the patient); and brine shrimp (Artemia salina). Photo credits: Wikimedia (tardigrade); Nova Laboratories, Ltd. (HyDRIS); and Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons (brine shrimp). Permission for use of HyDRIS image received from Nova Laboratories, Ltd.

Nova BioPharma created a dehydrated, shelf-stable vaccine (see Figure 2) by altering its biochemical properties. Stored in a cartridge, a liquid diluent from an attached syringe reactivates the vaccine upon administration (Europe Patent No. EP1928422B1, 2005). The development of an effective, shelf-stable vaccination will undoubtedly enhance the welfare of millions of lives around the world.

For an example of the bottom-up approach to biomimicry, consider mosquito bites. When students are asked to identify the unique features of the mosquito, most of them list bites, and some list blood draws. These sanguivorous pests have a unique feature – the ability to pierce our skin without immediate detection. Researchers identified an application for innovation – limiting pain associated with medical needle insertions. Mimicking form, function, and processes of the small mouthparts of the mosquito, researchers developed a hypodermic needle sixfold narrower than the traditional 30-gauge hypodermic needles (Izumi et al., 2008). Needle insertion with less pain quells patient discomfort. Most students agree that developing needles associated with less pain is a worthwhile idea.

Tips for Interpreting Information

The bottom-up approach to biomimicry works well in many informal science education institutions, such as zoos, aquariums, and some natural history museums. These settings generally have access to living things, biofacts, or artifacts to foster creative thinking. An approach that has been successful for biomimicry learning in ISIs is to ask students to identify characteristics that make an organism unique or special. Prompts can be given: ask students if the organism’s shape is similar to other organisms, if the organism moves differently than other living things, or if the organism defends itself through different means than other organisms. Most responses will be acceptable to encourage a creative dialogue.

As the students list characteristics, the educator can respond, as appropriate: interpret the science or encourage creative applications. If time and interest permit, the educator can explain the science, which can sometimes spark creativity. Using the mosquito-inspired example from above, imagine that an educator takes students to an entomology exhibit and asks them to list the unique characteristics of the mosquito. “Mosquito bites” will likely be one of the responses. Understanding the science of the mosquito bite increases the context for design creativity, as well as providing science education. The educator explains the mosquito-bite rationale – to obtain the proteins and iron in blood, required by female mosquitoes for egg production. This information might help the student make connections between mosquito bites and blood draws or fluid extraction. The context of the interaction (age, interest, knowledge, time) will guide the introduction of the science of the organism.

In another example, the educator can present an often-disliked creature as an opportunity to introduce biomimicry and alter perceptions: the snake. The educator asks students to brainstorm characteristics that make a snake unique. Likely they will list characteristics such as slithering, colors, patterns, camouflage, nocturnality, heat-sensing, thermoreceptors, tongue, and scales. The educator encourages students to think creatively about ways the special features could be applied to human innovation, explaining that this process is known as biomimicry. For example, “How can snake movement inspire the development of something new?” This is a fun exercise in creativity. The educator can introduce existing designs inspired by the ambassador animal: Astley et al. (2015) and Trebuna et al. (2016) designed snake robots to fit into tight spaces where humans cannot easily fit, such as between walls, underground, and inside debris from natural disasters (see Figure 3). Biomimicry is the intersection between art and science, promoting creativity. This aspect makes biomimicry a highly accessible subject for students of all ages and levels of education.

Figure 3.

Bio-inspired snake robot developed by Dr. Henry Astley, University of Akron. The robot snake accurately mimics the movements of the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus), also shown in photo. Photo credit: Dr. Henry Astley (used by permission).

Figure 3.

Bio-inspired snake robot developed by Dr. Henry Astley, University of Akron. The robot snake accurately mimics the movements of the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus), also shown in photo. Photo credit: Dr. Henry Astley (used by permission).

Classroom Component

Before visiting the ISI, educators can introduce biomimicry to the students by sharing a paper or book chapter or by inviting an expert guest speaker on the subject. Providing examples of existing biomimicry designs is helpful. After the introduction, educators can walk students through the design process with an overview explanation, by using an existing biomimicry design, and by using a more open-ended approach that asks students to select a problem or natural model to focus on and, as a class, creatively explore the possibilities to solve human problems with natural inspiration. Table 1 lists several materials that can be useful during the process.

Table 1.

Materials that can be useful in supporting student learning and creativity during the biomimicry process, inside and outside of the classroom.

Prior to ISI VisitDuring ISI VisitAfter ISI Visit

Images (micro- to macro-scale)

Natural artifacts (skulls, pelts, shells, seeds, branches, feathers, wings)

Biomimicry designs (hook-and-loop fastener, camouflage, etc.)

 

Understanding of phenomenon to be observed

Notebooks, sketch books

Writing, drawing tools

Camera

 

Computers with internet access

Access to primary literature, research

Natural artifacts

Writing, drawing tools

Modeling materials

Design and engineering programs (TinkerCad, SolidWorks, etc.)

3D printing, if possible

 
Prior to ISI VisitDuring ISI VisitAfter ISI Visit

Images (micro- to macro-scale)

Natural artifacts (skulls, pelts, shells, seeds, branches, feathers, wings)

Biomimicry designs (hook-and-loop fastener, camouflage, etc.)

 

Understanding of phenomenon to be observed

Notebooks, sketch books

Writing, drawing tools

Camera

 

Computers with internet access

Access to primary literature, research

Natural artifacts

Writing, drawing tools

Modeling materials

Design and engineering programs (TinkerCad, SolidWorks, etc.)

3D printing, if possible

 

Applying Biomimicry to Next Generation Science Standards

The creative nature of the biomimicry design process provides opportunities to incorporate biomimicry into all grade levels (K–16, plus graduate-level classes) and in a variety of courses (life sciences, physical sciences, chemistry, social sciences, math, and more) (see Table 2). More specifically, applying biomimicry to a high school physical science course could fulfill Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) HS-PS2-3 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions, which asks students to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macroscopic object during a collision. To meet this requirement, students could be asked to discover natural models that use structures or behaviors to react to force (for examples of natural models that react to force, see Table 3). For example, the spines of hedgehogs absorb force caused by falling (Drol et al., 2019) and the structures of trees react to high wind forces, allowing both of these organisms to survive by minimizing the effects of applied force. These organisms and others could inspire students to design sports helmets or buildings that react to high wind force like trees in hurricanes (see the photo at the top of this article: a sports helmet developed by Hedgemon, LLC, using hedgehog spines as inspiration).

Table 2.

Quick examples to apply biomimicry to standards (NGSS) at K–2, 3–5, and 6–8 grade levels. (A high school example is provided in Table 3.) Notice that these include examples from Life Science standards and Physical Science standards to demonstrate the interdisciplinarity of biomimicry.

Grade LevelNGSS StandardPerformance ExpectationBiomimicry Leading QuestionBiomimicry Application Example
K–2 

1-LS1-1

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

 
Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs. How do plants and animals get what they need to survive? How can plants and animals inspire us to design ways to move things, grab things, or obtain things we need? Elephants use trunks to obtain food and water. Trunks can inspire instruments to help humans grab or hold items or move water. 
3–5 

4-LS1-1

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

 
Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. How does nature protect itself? How can plants and animals inspire us to design better ways to protect ourselves or items? Animals that survive in extreme environments (hot or cold) have a variety of structures to help them survive the extremes. Polar bears have thick, double-layered coats, including transparent and hollow inner fibers to help stay warm. The structure of the polar bear’s fur can inspire apparel or blankets to help humans stay warm. 
Middle school MS-PS4-2 Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials. How does nature utilize sunlight to obtain energy for survival? How can plants inspire us to design better ways to harness and utilize sunlight? Plants use a variety of techniques to obtain sunlight (solar energy) for survival via the photosynthetic process. Colors and structures of leaves can increase the amount of light available for absorption for photosynthesis. This concept can inspire solar cells for energy acquisition, adaptive clothing that keeps us warm or cool, and building facades that direct light to or away from certain areas at certain times of day. 
Grade LevelNGSS StandardPerformance ExpectationBiomimicry Leading QuestionBiomimicry Application Example
K–2 

1-LS1-1

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

 
Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs. How do plants and animals get what they need to survive? How can plants and animals inspire us to design ways to move things, grab things, or obtain things we need? Elephants use trunks to obtain food and water. Trunks can inspire instruments to help humans grab or hold items or move water. 
3–5 

4-LS1-1

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

 
Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. How does nature protect itself? How can plants and animals inspire us to design better ways to protect ourselves or items? Animals that survive in extreme environments (hot or cold) have a variety of structures to help them survive the extremes. Polar bears have thick, double-layered coats, including transparent and hollow inner fibers to help stay warm. The structure of the polar bear’s fur can inspire apparel or blankets to help humans stay warm. 
Middle school MS-PS4-2 Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials. How does nature utilize sunlight to obtain energy for survival? How can plants inspire us to design better ways to harness and utilize sunlight? Plants use a variety of techniques to obtain sunlight (solar energy) for survival via the photosynthetic process. Colors and structures of leaves can increase the amount of light available for absorption for photosynthesis. This concept can inspire solar cells for energy acquisition, adaptive clothing that keeps us warm or cool, and building facades that direct light to or away from certain areas at certain times of day. 
Table 3.

Examples of natural models to be used as inspiration for problem listed in NGSS HS-PS2-3 example. Hedgehogs, trees, and woodpeckers react to different forces in different ways.

Natural ModelsNatural PhenomenonBiomimicry Designs
Hedgehog (Erinaceinae) Hedgehog spines absorb force to protect climbing hedgehogs falling from high places. Helmet liner (Hedgemon, LLC) to absorb force from hits (e.g., football) or impacts (e.g., biking) 
Trees, southern live oak (Quercus virginianaFlexible trunk and branches allow Live Oaks to respond to high winds. A complex underground root system provides increased stability. Buildings with interconnected foundations to provide support during hurricanes. Flexible outer coverings for buildings to protect inner building. 
Woodpeckers (Piciformes spp.) Woodpeckers drill holes in trees to find food. An internal structure (hyloid) attached to the tongue reduces vibration, protecting the bird from brain damage. Add a layer of internal protection, similar to the hyloid, to items needing protection: packages in transport, automobiles, protective gear. 
Natural ModelsNatural PhenomenonBiomimicry Designs
Hedgehog (Erinaceinae) Hedgehog spines absorb force to protect climbing hedgehogs falling from high places. Helmet liner (Hedgemon, LLC) to absorb force from hits (e.g., football) or impacts (e.g., biking) 
Trees, southern live oak (Quercus virginianaFlexible trunk and branches allow Live Oaks to respond to high winds. A complex underground root system provides increased stability. Buildings with interconnected foundations to provide support during hurricanes. Flexible outer coverings for buildings to protect inner building. 
Woodpeckers (Piciformes spp.) Woodpeckers drill holes in trees to find food. An internal structure (hyloid) attached to the tongue reduces vibration, protecting the bird from brain damage. Add a layer of internal protection, similar to the hyloid, to items needing protection: packages in transport, automobiles, protective gear. 

Conclusion

Informal science institutions are wonderful venues with ample resources to encourage and extend upon classroom learning. The design methods of biomimicry incorporate the natural world. Educators interested in including biomimicry learning in lesson plans can utilize ISIs, such as zoos and aquariums, where experiential, and sometimes interactive, learning is made accessible in ways that might be limited within the classroom. For example, visually observing, listening, and touching nature is vastly different from reading information in a book or on a screen.

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