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Chemistry and Biomimicry

Innovation and Design, Natural Systems
9, 10, 11, 12
Essential questions
How do adhesives work?
How can biomimicry inspire the development of new adhesive products?
What benefits do humans receive from coral reefs?
How do human activities endanger coral?
What can we learn from coral about how to build concrete?
How can biomimicry help influence improvements in solar energy technologies?
How do living things create materials versus how 3D printers accomplish the task?
What is the difference between natural and synthetic polymers?
What products could be created with a 3D printer using natural polymers to serve a valuable purpose?
How might we learn from organisms that use anhydrobiosis to survive long periods without water?
How could creating stable, dry vaccines have important medical and social implications?

LESSON 1: Make It Stick!—Nature’s Adhesives
(Estimated time needed: Two 60-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students explore both human-made adhesives and adhesion strategies found in nature while learning about intermolecular forces and the chemical properties of adhesives. As they do so, they have an opportunity to experience their understanding of an important chemistry topic through the lens of biomimicry. They begin by viewing a presentation that describes the ways adhesives work, and then they consider a variety of natural adhesives. Students examine the odd and compelling strategy used by the gecko and explore the concept of van der Waals forces to investigate the advantages of structural adhesion over chemical adhesion. In the second session, students apply what they have learned about adhesives as they complete an adhesives lab. In the lab, students explore which human-made adhesives are most effective for various tasks and how they compare to adhesives found in nature. As a class, students then share their findings and reflect on how our current methods of adhesion could be improved upon by applying the principles of biomimicry.

LESSON 2: Coral, Carbon, and Concrete
(Estimated time needed: One 60-minute session)
In this lesson, students explore the science behind an endangered ecological treasure: coral reefs. Students review the carbon cycle and examine how hard corals collect carbonate and calcium ions from seawater and use those materials to build calcium carbonate skeletons in which the soft coral polyps live. Students are then encouraged to note the differences between the natural calcification processes of hard corals and the processes humans use to make concrete. During a lab activity, students produce calcium carbonate from seawater and carbon dioxide (CO2) by mimicking one of the processes that corals use. Via this lab work and reflection, students consider what humans can learn from the process of coral formation and explore how biomimicry could help humans better regulate carbon emissions by learning to mimic natural processes. As students explore these concepts, they also learn important chemistry content, including how atoms form bonds, the behavior of solutions, and the predictive power of the periodic table.

LESSON 3: Raspberry Solar Power
(Estimated time needed: Two 60-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students consider how photosynthesis, the process that plants use to create energy, is similar to and different from the process used by human-designed photovoltaic (PV) systems. Students identify some of the harmful consequences of the human-designed process and ponder whether current solar technology is always as green as it seems. Then they investigate a specific type of PV cell that uses several common, organic elements that make it a more sustainable option. Students then apply their new knowledge and create a dye-sensitized solar cell that uses raspberries and other nontoxic materials. They put their solar cells to work and monitor how much energy their raspberry solar cells generate in different light settings. Finally, students reflect on how plants use "green" chemistry to harvest energy without consuming or producing toxic chemicals and how we might be able to use the concepts of biomimicry to build a better solar cell.

LESSON 4: The Ultimate 3D Printer
(Estimated time needed: One 60-minute session)
In this lesson, students explore how biomimicry could shape a new revolution in product manufacturing: 3D printing. Biomimics are drawing attention to the drawbacks of the last manufacturing revolution—the industrial revolution—and how many of the methods and materials we have used to make things are not in harmony with natural processes. Students see that, as we are on the cusp of a new 3D printing revolution, researchers are engaged in finding ways to take cues from nature, studying the materials and processes nature uses to build structures, with the goal of finding ways to use similar methods and materials in 3D printing to truly revolutionize manufacturing as we know it and create a more sustainable future. After considering the ideas of biomimics, students take up the challenge and work in teams to come up with an idea for a product that could be created with a 3D printer using natural polymers. Students then share their ideas with the class and help each other refine and improve their innovations to make them as useful and sustainable as possible.

LESSON 5: The African Midge and Vaccine Stabilization
(Estimated time needed: One 60-minute session)
In this lesson, students explore the topic of cryptobiosis, which is a physiological state in which an organism’s metabolic activity slows to a reversible standstill. Some organisms use this strategy to survive extreme conditions, such as a shortage of water, low or high temperatures, extremely salty water, or a lack of oxygen. Specifically, students analyze a scientific article to discover how the African midge, a tiny fly from northern Nigeria, can survive a wide range of extreme conditions including major variations in temperature, extreme drought, and airless vacuums such as outer space. They focus on the process of anhydrobiosis, which the midge uses to survive without water for long stretches of time. Students conduct a lab activity to investigate two important concepts: stabilization and solubility. They explore how a suspension could be stabilized and investigate factors that affect solubility. Then they apply what they’ve learned to an analysis of how the principles of anhydrobiosis might be used to create vaccines that can be effectively transported to people in remote corners of the world.

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