Over the past 3.5 billion years, nature has been perfecting life from the smallest bacterial cell to the largest blue whale. With each of those changes, the organism became more effective and efficient at surviving in its environment. It’s no surprise then, that scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are looking to copy Mother Nature to solve modern problems. Biomimicry, as it’s known, is a method for creating solutions to human problems by copying designs and ideas found in nature.
Since inventors throughout history have been inspired by the world around them, it’s easy to encourage this wonder in the classroom and get pupils to look to nature for ideas and inspiration for solving a problem.
It’s usually best to start with something familiar: why don’t insects (or, indeed, Spiderman) fall off surfaces? They can walk up walls, over glass windows and along ceilings, so why don’t they fall? Recently, Professor Stanislav Gorb and his team investigated how beetles such as leaf beetles can walk around all of the surfaces of leaves easily – even when upside down. When he viewed the feet of the beetles, there were many thousands of small mushroom-shaped structures on their feet and each of these was acting like tiny sink plungers holding on to the underside of the leaf.
Professor Gorb wondered if it was possible to make a synthetic sticky tape that has this same structure. He wanted it to be reusable and non-sticky to the touch (like a beetle foot) and to take a great force applied to it. So, he and his team have created a substance that does just that: it’s made of silicone but the structure of the tape under the microscope shows all of these tiny “plungers” that are able to stick to surfaces.
There are many other examples that pupils could research independently or explore with teacher guidance, depending on their age. Here are five examples from nature that never fail to enthuse my pupils:
Hydrophobic leaves that repel water
It’s possible to run this as an experiment in the classroom using a variety of leaves. Nasturtiums, brassicas, water lilies and hostas usually yield good results with a hand lens or binocular microscope. Ask pupils whether they can see any similar structures on the leaves (hairs, for example); these structures are capable of repelling water. By altering the structure of a material, it may confer water resistant properties that we have previously relied on plastics to provide. Challenge pupils to come up with areas where this property might be useful for humans.
Hydrophilic beetle shells that collect water
The Namib desert beetle’s back is covered in small, smooth bumps that can collect condensed water or fog. The entire shell is also covered in a slick, Teflon-like wax and, because the shell has grooves on it, the condensed water is funnelled into the beetle's mouth. Collecting water from thin air would be beneficial for communities in drought-susceptible areas or communities relying on purification methods such as distillation from seawater, which uses a lot of energy to achieve potable water. Can pupils list any other examples of where this might be useful?
Streamlined aeroplane wings
Humpback whale fins have inspired engineers to reconsider the classic shape of turbine blades to increase the efficiency and performance of wind turbines, fans, flippers and even wings on aircraft. Increasing the efficiency of turbine blades would be valuable as they would be able to generate more electricity from the same amount of wind, thereby further reducing the need for fossil fuels. Students could create models in the classroom and test blade shape for how easily they spin.
The biodegradable plastic called Shrilk
Shrilk is made from shrimp shells and silk protein and it’s hoped that Shrilk could provide solutions for planet-clogging plastics, as well as implantable medical devices. It can be used to manufacture objects without the environmental threat posed by conventional synthetic plastics, and then it rapidly biodegrades when placed in compost, releasing nitrogen-rich nutrient fertiliser. How might this invention be useful to humans and our increasing hope to achieve sustainability?
Hendrik Jonkers developed a new cement that could self-repair cracks by including natural bacteria (Bacillus pseudofirmus and B. cohnii) which produce limestone as a by-product. Normally dormant, the bacteria become active as soon as they meet water, and subsequently flow into the crack. The limestone created by the bacteria then fills in all the faults. Another benefit of this innovation is that the bacteria consume oxygen, which limits corrosion within the cement. How might these ideas be useful in housing developments? Would they also be useful where there are frequent earthquakes?
The key to bringing this subject to life is to show some great visual examples and then let your pupils explore the world around them using their imagination. Scanning electron microscope pictures is a great starting place to elicit those abstract “what is it?” discussions, keeping away from mundane answers and trying to see things from a different angle. You can then move on to the more practical “how might this be useful to us?” questions.
The next step for engaging with biomimicry would be to go out into the school grounds or set a homework task where your pupils sit quietly in the garden/park/beach/woods and observe what happens around them – writing it in a diary perhaps. What do they notice about the plants and animals in the area? Is there anything about the shape or feel of the plants that could be useful? Ideas can be pooled back in the classroom and used as aspringboardd to apply the findings to topic areas where innovation is needed (e.g., energy, architecture, agriculture, medicine, transportation or communication).
It’s worth reminding pupils that all observations might be useful (e.g., we all know that seaweed can be slippery, but there is growing evidence that Neolithic man used slimy seaweed to lubricate the path for moving huge standing stones over great distances in Orkney).
Pupils could prepare reports on their “innovations” or even go the whole hog and make prototypes if they are part of a group project within a Stem club. You never know, an observation from a student could lead to foster a relationship with scientists at a university. Twitter is great for making those kinds of connections; use #biomimcry or #bioinspiration for making links with institutes or inventors.
Sustainability already exists in nature, and it seems that biomimicry might offer a whole new way of addressing problems in the world around us. If we can encourage pupils to look at the world through this lens, we can support them to be sustainable-development entrepreneurs, meeting our needs – now and in the future – without costing the Earth.
Racheal Adams is head of science at a school in Devon and has taught and led science in a number of schools in the South of England