Nature's blueprint

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Donna Trebell explains how she incorporates maths, science and the natural world in lessons on architecture
Donna Trebell explains how she incorporates maths, science and the natural world in lessons on architecture

The Swiss Re building in London may be better known as the Gherkin, but a small pickled cucumber may not be its closest natural world equivalent.

Set a picture of the tower alongside a photograph of the Venus Flower Basket, a deep-sea sponge found off Japan and you can quickly see the similarities.

Nor do those parallels stop at the way they look: the sponge extracts acid from salt-water, which it turns into a skeleton of glass fibres, 100 times stronger than aluminium.

This is one of the examples we use to introduce the learning unit, "What can nature offer architectural design?"

The aim is also to develop cross-curricular links under the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) umbrella. Often as pupils start working on GCSE and A-level projects, I find myself researching maths and scientific concepts.

It's clear that design and technology cannot be divorced from science and maths, and that we can enhance pupils' learning by working together.

The starter, consisting of buildings and their possible stimuli, helps pupils see the connection between architecture and the natural form. We then move on to small tasks, alongside the equivalents for maths and science. For design and technology, these are:

- Produce a display with three new examples of nature-inspired buildings.

- Develop a presentation explaining the concept of sustainable building.

- Product lifecycles or how long something is used.

- Science tasks include looking at heat loss and the strength of materials, while for maths, pupils calculate carbon footprints and using the Golden Ratio (a frequently encountered number when taking the ratios of distances in simple geometric figures) to explain elegance.

From this, pupils go on to a major task, for example:

- Redesign an existing building more sustainably.

- Take a department from within the school and redesign it more sustainably.

- Identify an existing building with sustainable credibility. Explain how this is achieved, and suggest improvements.

- Outline the design for a new building on a given plot of land, ensuring that it is sustainable.

The big task has three phases. Phase one involves research, exploring scientific and mathematical aspects that will inform design thinking. In phase two, pupils generate ideas to address the task, including any scientific and mathematical justifications.

The final phase sees the pupils model, communicate and evaluate proposals using scientific and mathematical criteria.

Key questions for any evaluation will be: What is the building made from? How is it made? How does it provide services? How will it be retired?

This unit was developed with the Design and Technology Association. For a "how to" pack visit

Donna Trebell is lead Advanced Skills Teacher in design and technology at Mascalls School in Tonbridge, Kent.

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