Earlier this month, August 2016, I had the privilege of leading an evening reception for the NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. (OAI = Ohio Aeronautical Institute). A group of 60 attendees gathered inside the Primates, Cats, and Aquatics Building of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as we engaged in a discussion of Biomimicry in Your Backyard. I selected three common backyard critters to demonstrate how easy it is to find inspiration in the spaces around us every day: La Plata Armadillo, Eastern Box Turtle, and Children’s Python. This week’s blog will feature our one and only “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus).
As we’ve discussed before, biomimicry is accomplished by two possible methods: 1) Start with a question and look to nature for a solution, or 2) Start with an inspiring organism and discover what problems can be solved using that particular structure or behavior. Working in the zoo setting, I typically start with the latter. Whether I am preparing for our Biomimicry/Ecophysiology class within our Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University of Ohio and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, answering a question from one of our educators while preparing a program, or speaking at an event for Great Lakes Biomimicry, this is the case. I am given an animal and I start my research. My starting point is generally: What makes this organism unique? It is in this uniqueness that inspiration jumps out at you! I encourage all of you to try this any time you have a moment outdoors to think. It is really amazing what a person can dream up once the trigger is pulled. We will start at this point with our armadillo inspiration.
What makes an armadillo unique? Particularly, the La Plata Armadillo? I would play the Jeopardy music in the background, but I don’t think it will take you that long to come up with the answer: the carapace. The scutes are hard dermal bone with keratin—very similar to a tortoise shell. La Plata, also commonly called the 3-banded armadillo, has a shoulder plate and hip plate with dermal hinges to allow flexibility. This is the only species of armadillo that is able to roll into a complete ball, courtesy of a head plate and armored tail. The Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) contrastingly, has a soft outer shell.
The carapace offers several advantages. Most obviously, perhaps, is protection. The La Plata Armadillo is nearly impenetrable when he rolls into a ball. The only predator that could possibly open this shell needs to have opposable thumbs. However, even with this advantage, most predators would find the benefit (food) is not worth the cost (time) it takes to open. It also offers fortification measures by pinching the opposition in its hinges.
Another advantage of the carapace for this dweller of arid environments is thermal regulation. While all armadillos live in regions with temperatures between 92-97°F, the La Plata Armadillo can survive even hotter climates. One might think the shell would keep heat trapped inside the body, but the dermal hinges serve as climate control, allowing for air flow between the hinges.
Lastly, all armadillos have this really cool ability to travel across water. How?! They can hold their breath for really long periods of time. This allows them to walk on the bottom of riverbeds and waterways. What if they don’t want to walk? Like other mammals, they can suck in air and float across the water! Nothing can stop these guys from getting to the other side!
So I ask … what does the armadillo inspire in you?
It’s been three weeks since I moved back to my familiar habitat in Ghent, Belgium, to finish my PhD remotely. From all places, my primary advisor’s lab relocated to The University of Ghent earlier this year.
I had spent the first 22 years of my life in the same city, in the same house, when I decided to pursue a PhD in Biomimicry. Since UAkron is the only university that offers a PhD degree in Biomimicry my decision to relocate there was easy. Two months later I jumped into a new chapter of my life, which has been an eye-opening adventure. Getting out of your comfort zone takes courage. Almost everything around you is new and different. In the 3.5 years I lived in Akron, I was exposed to so many new people, places, ideas, traditions, landscapes, recipes… Every day you can learn something new. Feeling like a total stranger at the start, it took curiosity and adaptation to make myself part of a new habitat. Continue reading
This semester, most of the fellows are participating in a design course. Though I have been working with my corporate sponsor for almost a year at this point, it is interesting to utilize the biomimicry design process in an interdisciplinary group, with designers, engineers, and biologists working together to tackle problems. What I have personally noted from my experience thus far is the rapid ability of these teams to translate biological inspiration into innovative ideas. Because I do not have background in biology, searching for and understanding biological systems which fit my problems can be a bit taxing. I utilize the resources which are currently out there, and do not always find that for which I am looking. Sometimes I’ll find papers, but I will get lost in the details. Working as a team with biologists has been much different, in terms of being able to extract the lessons behind the natural systems, without having to sift through the many details, but also in terms of accessing a wealth of natural systems which I would not have been easily able to find on my own.
Last week, Dr. Ashok K. Goel of the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) visited the University of Akron. Ashok delivered a talk as part of the Integrated Bioscience Seminar Series. The topic? Cognitive Challenges of Biologically Inspired Design. Given my personal interest in the biomimicry innovation process (reminder: the focus of my dissertation is creating a piece of a procedural template that could be readily implemented by R&D managers), I was absolutely enthralled. Like a tween at a Bieber concert, I was snapping photos and kneeling on my chair for a better view.
Uniting the sciences is not that trivial.
I’d argue physics has done a lot in terms of breaking down the barriers between the sciences. Each science has their own physics—certain equations of phenomenon that work for their own field.
So in a sense, I can imagine physics as the center of the sciences. Only because physics brings both numbers and theory (math only brings the numbers), and it’s the theory that makes it all make sense.
To give some context, consider all of the physics off-shoots of our central fields: physical chemistry, biomechanics, biophysics, geophysics, etc. Not to mention physics’ attempt at a theory of everything—which is really just a theory of the small (which if correct is technically everything).
But I’m not convinced physics is the best intersection.
I see the problem though stemming from the way we convey physics (not that it isn’t a great choice for an intersection of the sciences). We teach it as separate things, each phenomenon has its own set of equations and rules, though they can be derived from some starting principles (newton, thermodynamics). Ultimately, by building it up as separate ideas, with clearly different models, the unity is lost: how can they work together?
This brings me finally to Biomimicry.
Biology isn’t just a good resource for solutions, it also creates great examples of the separate concepts can work together.
Biology is the application of physics. There are too many organisms that utilize the many types of physics to accomplish a goal. In a sense I would bet that anything we teach in class could be found in an organism.
The point of this is to unify the sciences not through a theory of everything, but rather a unified subject of study. Such that when we learn about physics/chemistry/engineering/mechanics it’s in the context of biology.
Unification through a common application rather than a common equation.
I think this would be a good foundation for someone who is considering an interdisciplinary path; where things are seldom purely one thing.
Thank you for taking the time to explore our blog! I am Adam Pierce. A Pacific Northwest transplant, I fell into Ohio because my wife had a unique opportunity to contribute to inventive education. Once here I was amazed at the innovation and scientific discovery focused in Ohio. Seeking to expand my own experience, I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply as an Integrated Bioscience doctoral student and as an Education Fellow to the Biomimicry program at The University of Akron and jumped at the chance. I will primarily be working with 5-8 grade students at the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM school, helping to make curriculum which will then hopefully provide a foundation for Biomimicry education in the years to come.
Continuing with the education theme from my past post, I’d like to highlight a great workshop I was able to participate in this summer, put on by BiomimicryNYC and sponsored by NYSERDA. At this Biomimicry Workshop for Educators, hosted by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, educators from all types of schools and grade levels came to learn how to integrate biomimicry into their own curriculum and lesson plans.
The teachers ranged from Kindergarten educators, up through the undergraduate teaching level (mainly for education majors). I’m continuously struck by how many people hear about biomimicry and then have this intense desire to learn about it. Even through this course, one teacher learned about and was subsequently sponsored by a parent to go through this workshop because he could see the value in bringing it to the school. Yet another teacher’s catalyst was her own child, learning about biomimicry through her. Learning about biomimicry and the workshop came from a number of different trajectories, but regardless of the start, we all came together to learn how to teach the next generation about this incredible new paradigm of thinking.
Through the workshop, we tried out and experimented with various established lesson plans, but expanded beyond scientific biomimetic applications, to delve into the fictional realm – letting kids use their imaginations, blended with biomimicry tools and knowledge, to come up with something completely unique, such as….Mantis Shrimp Man! This lesson let kids (in this case – us big kids) create our own super heroes taking inspiration from unique abilities of organisms and systems. We then drew the super heroes and shared them with the rest of the class. What a great way to combine biomimicry, science, art and design, and public speaking skills into one lesson – a truly biomimetic, cross-disciplinary designed lesson! Below are a few photos of the many activities we dove into.
We’ve had a lot of posts on what’s happening globally with research, neat sustainability ideas, etc., but for this week, I thought I’d highlight something a bit closer to home – biomimicry education in Northeast Ohio.
Officially, I’m the first Biomimicry Education Fellow in the PhD program – hosted at Lake Ridge Academy, and serving the greater Lorain County Public Schools, thanks to a generous Nord Family Foundation grant. I’ve been on board for six months now, and have been amazed at how many schools in the region are taking it upon themselves to integrate biomimicry in some capacity at a more grassroots level. This past week, with the help of Key Bank, Great Lakes Biomimicry hosted a regional “Education Showcase,” which brought teachers of various schools together to highlight how they’ve been incorporating biomimicry into their classrooms.
As wide and varied were the schools, so were the approaches to biomimicry integration. One school, Tallmadge Public High School, was very bottom-up in its approach. The students came to the biology teacher to start a biomimicry club and although the teacher had no idea what biomimicry was, she was keen to get on board, resulting in two remarkable outcomes in two short years. A biomimicry science fair team made it to the state competition, and by the end of the second year, the club had grown threefold to over 60 students.
Another school – The Inventor’s Hall of Fame STEM School – has a “Biomimicry in Every Classroom” approach, utilizing Problem-Based Learning (PBL) across curricula, while integrating biomimicry throughout the subjects. Yet another school’s (Hawken) biology and art teachers worked together to get the kids to use biomimicry to solve an everyday issue they encounter, then represent the outcome in a fine arts piece, while having the high school entrepreneurship classes come in to help teach the students about making business pitches. This culminated in an awesome trifecta of disciplines coming together around biomimicry, and a showcase where projects were presented to parents.
In yet another interesting approach, MC2 STEM School did a nine-week biomimicry PBL focused approach, collaborating with business partners on a regional real-world issue, which resulted in prototypes designed by the students.
The enthusiasm was palpable in the room, not only for biomimicry, but coming together to learn from each other and see what else is going on in the region. Each approach was underpinned by a common thread, and that was devoted teachers putting in time, effort, and many times, their own funds, to teach kids about biomimicry. There are a ton of really exciting things happening in Northeast Ohio when it comes to biomimicry education, but for my next post, I’m already looking forward to discussing an amazing workshop I’m currently attending – a Biomimicry for Educators Workshop at the Omega Institute, put on by Biomimicry NYC and sponsored by NYSERDA that brings together educators from a range of disciplines and grade levels. It’s awesome!
The first cohort of fellows has been given the great opportunity to do an internship at a design firm, Balance, Inc.., located in Cleveland. Design is an important aspect of biomimicry because it is about finding connections between scientific knowledge and human applications. Looking through a designer’s lens, biomimicry is a great tool for innovation. So this collaboration was put forward with the goals that we (Biomimicry PhD students) would learn how designers work in a setting with real-life challenges, and in return we would bring the designers a different perspective.
I was the first to kick off the series of internships. Time has passed by too quickly; it’s already my last day. I enjoyed spending time surrounded by creative people that all seem to really like their job. A month wasn’t long, but I was able to get a sense of how designers work and how a biomimetic approach differs from a more ‘traditional’ design approach.
Obviously, the biggest difference between a biomimetic approach and a ‘traditional’ design approach is that the biomimic seeks inspiration from nature. After having defined the problem to be solved (i.e. function to be fulfilled) the biomimic starts digging in his or her brain for biological realities he or she has been exposed to that will inspire solutions to the challenge at hand. The ‘traditional’ designer is also digging into his or her memory for design inspiration, but in this initial brainstorming phase I saw a big difference between what a ‘traditional’ designers vs. a biomimic finds inspiring. Ideas the designers at Balance were shouting out were all related to existing products, designs and services that they have encountered in their lives, from impressive working engineering solutions, greatly designed products, to small tools they sell at the local store. I was honestly impressed by products and services they knew about that I couldn’t even imagine existing. On the other hand, very few were thinking about how spider webs or even our own human body could help solve the challenge.
I realized that in both cases, creativity is based on what you already know and highly limited to how you could connect those things together. Limitations of your own imagination can be widely extended by exposing yourself to more fascinating things. The designers at Balance shared many great websites I can use to get inspiration; they told me to go “shopping” to see what crazy things are out there. Well, this is essentially the same manner in which a biomimic could get more exposure to natural inventions. If you don’t have time to go “shopping” in your backyard or on that local trail, the internet is a great source too. I’m not saying you should always use the internet as an alternative to venturing outside, as your brain activity is drastically better after walking outside versus sitting quietly, staring at your computer screen (but we do appreciate you staring at your computer screen to read this).
But the internet is a good source of inspiration when getting outside is not an option. To make your lives easier, and honestly mine too because writing this post has forced me to compile links gathered through the past years, I made this list of interesting links for reading about biomimicry. I encourage you to visit these links when you want to get inspiration from nature (indirectly!).
Hope this helps to inspire you and motivates you to use nature for solving that challenge on which you are working!
And of course, please feel welcome to share links I haven’t included. The biomimetic community should work together to build upon this list.
– How does nature…. http://www.asknature.org
– Biomimicry 3.8 – Case Studies: http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry/case-examples/
– Global access to knowledge about life on Earth: http://eol.org
– The nexus of science and design in the field of biologically inspired design, using case studies, news and articles: http://zqjournal.org
– BCI is offering a radical new way of doing business; a way that is both inspired by and in harmony with Nature: http://businessinspiredbynature.com
– Curated by Janine Benyus: http://www.scoop.it/t/biomimicry-3-8
– This book takes us into the interesting world of biomimetics and describes various arenas where the technology is applied. The 25 chapters covered in this book disclose recent advances and new ideas in promoting the mechanism and applications of biomimetics: http://www.intechopen.com/books/biomimetics-learning-from-nature
– The Next Nature Network explores how our technological environment becomes so omnipresent, complex, intimate and autonomous that it becomes a nature of its own: http://www.nextnature.net [their theme tap has some good ones]
– Integrating Ecological design. Their practitioner guide is truly helpful and all-inclusive: http://www.okala.net
– Is there a biologist on your team? http://www.driversofchange.com/convergence/biomimicry/
– Best of Biomimicry (2013) http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/best-biomimicry.html
– Nature knows best: A biologist and a designer take creative direction from the Earth’s operating system http://blog.ted.com/2014/02/07/nature-knows-best-a-biologist-and-a-designer-take-creative-direction-from-the-earths-operating-system/
– Biomimicry – finding design inspiration in nature http://www.designboom.com/contemporary/biomimicry.html
– How Biomimicry Can Help Designers and Architects Find Inspiration To Solve Problems (2012) http://inhabitat.com/how-biomimicry-can-help-designers-and-architects-find-inspiration-to-solve-problems/?goback=%2Egde_1485297_member_195634792
– University of Akron’s research into geckos’ natural stickiness may pay off in companies and products: http://www.cleveland.com/science/index.ssf/2012/09/university_of_akrons_research.html
– Aspiring to improve the world by crafting a career in sustainable design: http://www.core77.com/blog/sustainable_design/aspiring_to_improve_the_world_by_crafting_a_career_in_sustainable_design_part_1_a_new_way_of_thinking_26536.asp
– Bringing Biomimicry to market: Impact investing inspired by nature (has great links for books, genius of biome report!): http://www.maximpact.com/Newss/Blog/TabId/125/PostId/78/bringing-biomimicry-to-market-impact-investing-inspired-by-nature.aspx
– Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature (3 episodes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv1iOD7yui4&list=PLV8mEllZd4vtTervARexSiL-i1DTGw24C
– David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, episode on Biomimicry: http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/the_nature_of_things_biomimicry_part_1
– PBS NOVA – Making Stuff Wilder (S41E04, Oct. 23 2013): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mi4ygJO_hYs&feature=youtu.be
– Videos on Animal and plant adaptations and behaviors: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/adaptations
– Planet Earth: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/collections/p00fxg1n
– The story of solutions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpkRvc-sOKk
– The Biomimicry column blog: http://www.greenbiz.com/engage/featured-blogs/the-biomimicry-column
– Digging deeper to understand and apply biomimicry as innovation methodology: http://www.biomimicrist.com
– Emerging design ideas of biomimicry, critical creativity, sustainability and strategic thinking: http://bouncingideas.wordpress.com
– A key to good design is a sense of responsibility: http://biologytodesign.wordpress.com
– The book of the mimicry of the living: http://biomimicron.wordpress.com
– Nature + Design for a Sustainable Future: http://biomimeticdesign.wordpress.com
– Sprouting sustainable, nature-inspired ideas in Northeast Ohio: http://germinature.com
– Biomimicry Education Network: http://ben.biomimicry.net
– The Bio-Inspired Design (BID) Community promotes the practical application of bio-inspired design, emphasizing the ‘challenge to biology’ approach: http://bioinspired.sinet.ca
– Centre for bioinspiration: http://bioinspiration.sandiegozoo.org
– The Biomimetics for Innovation and Design Laboratory (affiliated with the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto): http://www.mie.utoronto.ca/labs/bidlab/
– BiomimicryNYC is a consortium of individuals from all industries, sectors and backgrounds dedicated to fostering a community of nature-inspired practice in the New York City metro region: http://biomimicrynyc.com/category/resources/
– The University of Akron Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center: http://uabiomimicry.org
Winter break has come to a close, and spring semester is just beginning. Since we are the first cohort in UAkron’s Biomimicry PhD, we are working with our professors Peter Niewiarowski (evolutionary biologist), Doug Paige (designer) and Matthew Kolodziej (studio artist), to shape our program curriculum. By trial and error, we’re learning which approaches work and which don’t. We refine the most effective approaches for implementation in future years. The responsibility is great, and the path can be trying at times, but it’s really rewarding to play such a major role in this program’s development. Here’s what we’ve come up with for a few of our second semester classes: