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Biology and Biomimicry

Innovation and Design, Natural Systems
9, 10, 11, 12
Essential questions
What physical and behavioral adaptations allow Namib Desert beetles to survive with limited water?
What have humans learned from Namib Desert beetles about how to catch water from air?
How do bees coordinate their behavior to select a new location for a hive?
How can principles of swarm intelligence be applied in human systems and computing?
What are some examples of biomimetic products inspired by swarm intelligence?
How do natural ecosystems stay in balance?
What is industrial ecology, and why should we care about it?
How do natural systems, such as wetlands, regulate excess nutrients?
How can humans mimic nature to avoid upsetting the balance in natural systems?
What properties and structures allow bones to be both lightweight and strong?
How could we use biomimicry and our understanding of the bones to create new innovations?

LESSON 1: Catching the Fog
(Estimated time needed: Two 55-minute sessions and one 15-minute session)
In this lesson, students learn about adaptations that allow Namib Desert beetles to harvest water vapor from the air in order to survive in the water-scarce desert. They explore how physical design and behavioral adaptations allow these beetles to “catch the fog.” Then they consider several examples of human innovations that incorporate some of the beetles’ strategies to solve challenges human face. In the second session, students apply what they've learned by designing and building a working prototype of a dew catcher.

LESSON 2: Swarm Intelligence and Smart Systems
(Estimated time needed: One 55-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students learn about how simple organisms can solve complex problems via a collective intelligence known as swarm intelligence. The lesson begins with an active simulation in which students see first-hand what can happen when a group follows simple rules. They then explore the concept of swarm intelligence in detail through examples of collective group behavior in ants, starlings, and honeybees. Next, they consider what scientists have discovered about coordinated systems in nature, and they look at how key principles of swarm intelligence can be applied to smart devices and in computing to solve complex human challenges, such as increasing energy efficiency in commercial buildings and using robots for rescue missions.

LESSON 3: Industry and Ecology: A Natural Fit
(Estimated time needed: Two 55-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students learn about the complex system of checks and balances that make the North American Prairie ecosystem one of the most biodiverse and resilient systems in the world. The interdependencies of the prairie system and its ability to survive and thrive in the face of environmental disturbances such as fire and drought, make it a model of environmental and economic sustainability. Students apply this model to industry, investigating the concept of industrial ecology and how it applies to heavy polluters such as coal-fired power plants. They study the Kalundborg Industrial Ecosystem, which serves as a prime example of industrial ecology in action. Then students tour their school and conduct research to determine how aspects of the North American Prairie ecosystem and Kalundborg could be applied to their own school community. They identify how waste byproducts from one process in their campus system could be used as a resource or input in another process, thus increasing the environmental and economic sustainability of the school.

LESSON 4: Pond Killers and Dead Zones
(Estimated time needed: Three 55-minute sessions)
In this lesson, students learn about ecosystem balance and the nitrogen cycle. They explore how modern human activities can disrupt natural systems and cycles, such as when fertilizer from industrial agriculture runs off into streams, rivers, and lakes. Students learn about algal blooms and become familiar with terms like eutrophication and hypoxia. They conclude Session 1 by setting up an algae bioreactor and fertilizing it with one of several nutrient sources to compare how nutrients in organic and synthetic forms lead to different outcomes. In Session 2, students discuss how biomimicry can be applied at different scales, such as at the level of structures, processes, or entire systems. They investigate one system design for cleaning waterways, one which mimics the natural filtration of a wetland. Finally, in Session 3, students revisit the algae samples they set up in Session 1 and examine the impact that various nutrients have on algae populations. They consider what humans can learn from the way nature balances nutrients so we can avoid befouling our waterways in the first place and restore balance to damaged systems.

LESSON 5: Inspirational Bones
(Estimated time needed: At least one 55-minute session)
In this lesson, students learn that bones are made of soft and hard materials with empty spaces interspersed to provide strength and structure for a body while minimizing weight. Students explore the various functions that bones serve, and examine how differing structures within different bones suit specific functions. Then students key into several properties of bones that are of interest to innovative problem-solvers. They learn how these properties can be applied to solve structural engineering problems, such as building more efficient cars, furniture, or buildings. Finally, they are challenged to apply what they’ve learned by working with a partner to build a strong, lightweight structure that can support a heavy weight.

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