Innovative Imitation

What does birdwatching have to do with trains?  What does “shark week” have to do with staph infection?  What do termites have to do with ventilation?  These are just a few of the questions I asked my STEM students recently, and although I didn’t expect them to know the answers, I did expect them to be curious about the questions…and were they ever!

Building rockets, performing egg drops, coding, educational escape rooms…these are the things of STEM Camps.  And this was true of the STEM Camp I participated in recently for the Kearsarge Regional School District.  It was a beautiful thing, really.  Seeing kids participating in activities that intrigue them, challenge them, and grow them.  

This innovative house for humans was modeled after the home of the bowerbird!

But where did my workshop fit in?  What does observing nature have to do with engineering, mathematics, and technology?  How does it relate to designing, creating, and problem-solving?  I’ll be honest with you – sometimes not at all!  But in many cases throughout history, observing nature’s solutions has helped people solve some of humanity’s problems.  And this is the scientific practice of biomimicry – the innovative imitation of nature in engineering or invention.  

I first became fascinated with biomimicry when I was researching the amazing creatures of the rocky shore for a curriculum I was writing five years ago.  When reading about the blue mussel – the animals you find on the beach residing in their blue and black bivalve shell – I learned about their incredible byssal threads.  Byssal threads are strong, sticky fibers made from proteins used by mussels to attach to rocks amidst the crashing waves and fluctuating tides of the saltwater seashore.  

Photo Credit: Thom Smith

What in the world do byssal threads have to do with solving human problems?!  Just think about it – a strong adhesive that can work well underwater…can you imagine the implications if a scientist could develop this technology?  Well, scientists are working hard at creating adhesives similar to those of blue mussels by mimicking the makeup of byssal threads.  Artificial mussel glues could assist with maritime problems, closing wounds and incisions, and even improve surgery on babies in the womb!

Why introduce biomimicry to kids?  Because observation, a fundamental aspect of biomimicry, is vital to scientific progress.  It is a main facet of both the scientific method and the engineering design process.  A skilled observer needs to be patient, notice important details, and make connections between what is being observed to the possible implications of the observation.  

Another bowerbird imitation!

I don’t know if you noticed today, but our culture is becoming faster – faster in obtaining what we want and faster to move on to the next thing.  Being a good observer can be quite challenging to today’s youth with the normal speed in which they can acquire what they want.  Learning about biomimicry can assist students not only with solving some of humanity’s problems, but it can also help them to slow down and become more effective critical thinkers.  

“Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inspired by Nature” by Kristen Nordstrom

In my endeavor to educate my STEM Camp students on biomimicry and the many examples of this scientific practice, I sought out help.  I contacted teacher and author Kristen Nordstrom to see if she would be willing to let me use her book, “Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature” for my workshop.  She not only gave me permission to use her book, but she also created a video for the students to inspire them with their biomimicry projects!  I was ecstatic that Kristen was willing to go above and beyond to help us, and her amazing book (which you SHOULD get on Amazon) was an incredible asset to our work.  

I know you’ve been wondering about the answers to the questions above!  Without further ado:  What does birdwatching have to do with trains?  A birdwatching engineer designed a bullet train like a kingfisher to create a quieter, more efficient train!  What does “shark week” have to do with staph infection?  A scientist observed a dirty submarine and wondered how a shark kept clean.  He researched sharkskin and invented a coating that can keep hospital surfaces cleaner!  What does a termite have to do with ventilation?  An architect researched how a self-cooling termite mound can maintain its temperature within one degree despite fluctuating temperatures outside, and built an award-winning building in Harare, Zimbabwe!

From Sharkskin to Hospitals – Illustration by Paul Boston

Biomimicry.  The innovative imitation of nature.  So cool and so useful.  More than outside-the-box thinking…OUTSIDE thinking!

Models of Human Homes Inspired by Ant Colonies, Beaver Lodges, Yellowjacket Nests, Blue Mussels, Bowerbirds, and Termite Mounds!

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