CIA’s Spring Design Show

As you may recall from the previous post “Spring Semester 2013,” this spring Bill, Emily, and I collaborated with two industrial design students from the Cleveland Institute of Art (‘intelligently’ acronymed CIA) to address the challenge of sports-related head injury prevention. UAkron Biology Professor and Biomimicry PhD Director, Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, as well as CIA Industrial Design Professor and Sustainability Steward, Doug Paige, rounded out our team of seven (according to the “Reciprocity” blog post this may be  the optimal number for collaboration!).  Our research and design concepting was not sport-specific.  Rather, we focused on the one big, overarching head injury problem experienced in most sports: concussion.

Current helmets seem to be effective against penetration injuries, but ineffective at protecting against concussion.  The human brain “floats” in cerebrospinal fluid within the skull.  Concussion is caused by brain deformation via impact with the inside of our skull. This is an anatomical hurdle for helmet designers.  Despite this anatomical hurdle, there must be a way to bring down the high rates of concussion sports players face today. Natural models might provide us with clues as to how.  A woodpecker can withstand repeated 1200 G-force blows when it pecks trees without hurting itself. Bighorn sheep have ramming battles for up to three hours without losing their mind.  These are two relatively obvious examples of natural models that could help us design better protective sports gear.  Their connection with the design problem is straightforward.  But through deep bio-brainstorming sessions, we found many less obvious natural models in Nature’s toolbox.

Using biomimicry as an approach to solve a design problem can lead to plentiful, innovative design concepts with huge market potential.  But how can a designer apply the bioimimicry method to their work?  One tool, developed and distributed by Biomimicry 3.8 is called the Biomimicry Thinking Wheel. This tool is a framework to help biomimicry practitioners in their journey of solving a design problem. Biomimicry Thinking involves four essential steps: scoping, discovering, creating, and evaluating; each with several sub-steps. Biomimicry Thinking is not linear. Rather, you can jump from one step to another, and go back to earlier steps to do more research as needed. Two individuals tackling the same design problem could take two entirely different paths around (and across!) the wheel. Using the Biomimicry Thinking wheel to guide us, our team has made great progress on our design project this semester.  We presented our work-to-date during CIA’s April 23-26 Spring Design Show. The show emphasizes entrepreneurship and is hosted by Case Weatherhead School of Management.  The show is open to the public.  Most attendees are recruiters, potential investors, local media reps, and fellow students interested in student work.

Of course, a 13-week semester is not nearly enough time to refine a design, especially one that addresses an issue highly politicized by recent developments in the NFL.  Safety gear also has a slew of associated liability considerations.  We don’t plan to stop here, especially since our research leads us to believe we have a huge opportunity to develop a great product more reliable at preventing injury than what is currently out there.  In future months we’ll continue to work on this project in hopes of eventually rapid prototyping our ideas and testing their performance.  We might even do so in UAkron’s future fab lab, the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center, for which we recently acquired funding.  Stay tuned for more updates. Feel free to contact us at with input/questions.


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