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Physics and Biomimicry

Innovation and Design, Natural Systems
9, 10, 11, 12
Essential questions
What is elastic energy and how does it relate to potential energy?
How does the structure and form of a mantis shrimp contribute to the enormous force of its strike?
How might we use biomimicry and our understanding of the mantis shrimp to create new innovations?
What is light and what is color, and how do they relate to the electromagnetic spectrum?
How does light wave interference create structural color?
What are some examples of structural color in nature and how might we mimic nature to use structural color instead of toxic paints and stains?
How does the African elephant regulate its body temperature?
What are some ways we can apply lessons learned from the African elephant’s thermoregulation processes to address human challenges?
Why are scientists and engineers increasingly looking to nature for inspiration when designing robots?
How could we address a personal or societal problem by creating a robot whose design mimics a structure or strategy found in nature?
How does the structure of a pomelo fruit peel contribute to high levels of impact resistance?
What biomimicry applications have been inspired by the structure of the pomelo's peel?

LESSON 1: Elastic Energy and the Mantis Shrimp
(Estimated time needed: Two 50-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students build upon their previous knowledge of potential and kinetic energy by exploring the concept of elastic energy storage via a case study of the mantis shrimp. One of nature’s most unusual and extraordinary creatures, the mantis shrimp, possesses the most powerful strike in the animal kingdom. In the first session, students investigate the structure of a mantis shrimp’s striking appendage. A spring-and-latch mechanism, made up of several parts of the animal’s exoskeleton, includes an immensely powerful spring that stores potential energy in the form of elastic energy and a latch that allows the mantis shrimp to suddenly release its appendage with immense kinetic energy. In the second session, students complete a lab to test how a vinyl toy popper can store tremendous potential energy, and they work with several formulae to determine the potential energy and kinetic energy of the popper. Finally, students reflect on their lab work and ask themselves how biomimicry and what we observe from the mantis shrimp might increase our ability to store elastic energy and harness it for human use.

LESSON 2: Built for Brilliance: Structural Color
(Estimated time needed: Two 60-minute sessions)
This lesson begins with students recalling what they know about light. They then acquire a clearer understanding of how light behaves by recreating the classic double-slit experiment. A video gives students perspective on how difficult the concept of light can be to understand and how the double-slit experiment helps clarify its fascinating properties. In the second session, students view a presentation that covers the concepts of light, color, electromagnetic waves, and wave interference. They consider how pigments create color versus how structures can create color and iridescence. Through an investigation of the blue morpho butterfly and other organisms, students learn how nature can use structures to create enduring and impressive colors. They then look at an example of one company that is using structure to create color in materials, and they brainstorm their own ideas about how structural color might be used in human creations in the future.

LESSON 3: Elephant Hot Spots
(Estimated time needed: One 60-minute session)
In this lesson, students learn how African elephants have thermal windows, or “hot spots,” that help them thermoregulate by radiating excess thermal energy. Students read an article and study thermal images to explore how a complex network of tiny blood vessels help an elephant maintain homeostasis in a hot climate. Students then further process what they’ve learned by attempting to simulate an elephant’s hot spot using lab materials. Finally, students think critically about how humans could apply what we’ve learned about elephant hot spots to solve human challenges and they brainstorm some of their own ideas.

LESSON 4:The Nature of Robots
(Estimated time needed: One 60-minute session)
In this lesson, students learn that, contrary to many examples from movies and pop culture, most robots do not look like humans. They see how, rather than simply trying to make exact replicas of organisms, many modern roboticists observe strategies and structures that have evolved in nature and use them as a starting point for their own designs. Students explore several specific examples of bio-inspired robots and consider how studying the form and function of organisms has helped roboticists address human challenges. Then they apply the biomimicry design process to design their own bio-inspired robot that will solve a specific personal or societal challenge.

LESSON 5: The Amazing Pomelo Fruit
(Estimated time needed: Two 60-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students learn how the specialized structure of a pomelo fruit peel provides it with shock absorption properties that protect the massive fruit when it free falls from a soaring tree branch. Students explore the factors that cause an object to have high levels of potential energy as well as structural characteristics that enable an object to dissipate large amounts of energy on impact. Next, students apply what they’ve learned in an egg-drop challenge. This twist on the traditional egg-drop challenge pushes students to design an egg “peel” using a variety of lightweight materials that are combined in such a way as to model the gradual transition in density that is characteristic of a pomelo fruit peel. Lastly, students explore real-world applications of materials that have remarkable shock-absorption properties.

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