Introducing Engineering Students to BioInspiration

Creativity, Innovation and Vision Courses

At this point in the semester I introduce myself to the students in the Engineering courses with the title Creativity, Innovation and Vision.  There is both an undergraduate (ENG333) and a graduate version of this course (ENG598).

The originator of the course is Dr. Bruce Litchfield. Students in these courses learn that their own state of creativity is not as static as they might expect. Bruce and his collaborators also do research on creativity enhancement; paying special attention to the ways in which engineering students currently incorporate creativity, since it has been shown that for engineering students creativity does not increase as they move through their college courses (the same is likely to be true for students in other disciplines).(1)

The descriptions for the CIV courses are:

“Personal creativity enhancement via exploration of the nature of creativity, how creativity works, and how to envision what others may not. Practice of techniques and processes to enhance personal and group creativity and to nurture a creative lifestyle. Application to a major term project providing the opportunity to move an idea, product, process or service from vision to reality.” (2)

The courses are quite popular with students from all over campus, not just Engineering.  Many of the students who take the graduate level course become teaching assistants for the undergraduate course in subsequent semesters. (I think in this case the term ‘facilitators’ instead of TA is more applicable)

BioInspiration (formerly BioCreativity)

Over the last ~3 years I have worked with Bruce and the TAs on a module we call BioCreativity BioI.  It is basically a module on BioInspiration or Biomimicry. I now kind of regret coming up with yet another term for a field of study that suffers from much confusion due to terminology already, but students seem to like the title because it fits into the focus of the course so perfectly. However, if we adhered to proper terminology more rigorously it should be acknowledged that BioCreativity is actually the combination of biology and art, not biology and technology, as we use it here. [Note: in 2014 we realized that the term Biocreativity created too much confusion and we decided to name this module BioI or BioInspiration].

The BioInspiration module is divided into four class meetings and each meeting is separated by 2 or 3 weeks [Note: in 2014 we also decide to condense the module since students felt they were not able to focus on this one task if they had all these other topics being thrown at them too.]  This week I met the students of two ENG333 sections. This semester a large majority of students are engineers (mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical, bioengineering). A number of students are computer science majors, and advertising majors. A couple of students are majoring in the arts, such as creative writing and graphic design. Students from the humanities are also represented, by majors in philosophy and anthropology. In other words, it is quite a diverse group of students eager to learn how to enhance their creativity.

During our first meeting this past week I introduced the students to the topic of Biocreativity.  I mostly talked unscripted, but I also had a pretty PowerPoint behind me with amazing pictures by Alex Wild (http://www.alexanderwild.com/). [Note: in 2014 the course will have 7 or more sections. Too many for me to visit. We have decided to therefore put this first lecture on video which will be presented to the students during the class.]

  • I continued the introduction by explaining how I became interested in Bioinspiration. I like to tell the students that it is all my husband’s fault. I am married to a mechanical engineer and over the 25 years that we have known each other, we have taken many a road trip. Usually during these trips we end up “discussing” why insects are better/worse at “doing stuff” than human engineers. In the beginning (the first 24 years) he always ended the argument by saying something like: “Well, sure that might be a cool thing that insects can do, but can they fly 500 people across an ocean? No? Well, there then!” My interest in teaching modules, courses, and now this blog on Bioinspiration is all because I really want to learn how to win this argument.
  • "Biomimicry Shoe" by Marieka Ratsma and Kostika Spaho. Interesting, definitely. Pretty, maybe.Biomimicry, definitely not.Photograph by Thomas van Schaik.

    Biomimicry Shoe” by Marieka Ratsma and Kostika Spaho. Interesting, yes. Pretty, maybe. Biomimicry, definitely not.
    Photograph by Thomas van Schaik.

    I then very briefly explained what I mean by Biomimicry and Bioinspiration. I do this quickly because the topic of definitions might evaporate all creativity out of these students. I put up Janine Benyus’ (Biomimicry3.8) Life’s principles, and also Robert J. Full’s quote about evolution working on the just good enough principle.  I actually spend more time on what I think biomimicry and bioinspiration is not. Students see these types of examples often in popular media because the terms have become buzzwords.

  • Why have biomimicry and bioinspiration become buzzwords? In my opinion it is probably because people like to think that if we copy/mimic/emulate nature, or at least base some or our new engineering designs on nature, then it is probably also more sustainable. And sustainability is itself a buzzword. I stressed in my presentation that that is not necessarily the case. The most famous example of bioinspiration is probably Velcro, which is made from synthetic materials that are not biodegradable and cost a lot of energy to produce.  For many scientists who are inspired by nature and use biomimicry or bioinspiration as a guide it is not sustainability per se that drives them. It is a guide to making new basic biological discoveries, or to innovate and solve a technological problem. “Why does an animal or a plant do that? And how can we use that what I have learned in a new technology?”
  • Next I make a very controversial statement: “I think my husband is basically correct.”  Of course, nature has not been able to carry 500 people across an ocean. Primarily because of the issue of scale. Nature works at a much smaller scale than we humans usually do. However, we currently live during very exciting times, where we can find inspiration for innovation at a smaller scale. We can now image at the nano-scale. That means that we can see structures and processes at a scale where very important things in nature happen. At the same time we are starting to be able to manufacture at that size scale too. We can start to build structures the way that nature builds materials and structures; hierarchical and from the bottom up.
RulerAnt

Dinoponera australis. Photograph by Alex Wild. http://www.alexanderwild.com.

  • Just consider an ant. Think of the interesting aspects of an ant’s body and life history. All these apsects have the potential to inspire us. (These are subjects I will blog about in greater detail at a later point).
  1. Exoskeleton (cuticle). Multifunctional. Made from relatively few elements (compared to all the elements from the periodic table we use to manufacture our multifunctional materials). One individual often has cuticle that has different characteristics – soft (larva, abdomen) or hard (adult, head), for instance. And on top of that, when molting occurs in the larval stages most of this cuticle is recycled and used in the new cuticle. No toxic substances required. All of life’s principles satisfied.
  2. Located on the surface of the cuticle are nanostructures that can help capture moisture, or give an insect color (as is the case in the Morpho butterfly).
  3. The locomotory mechanisms of insects, including ants, has inspired many bioinspired robots. I have tried to keep up with all the different bioinspired robots on this Pinterest Board.
  4. Insects, even tiny ones like this ant, have many interesting sensors on their bodies: compound eyes, simple eyes, antennae, mechanoreceptors, etc.
  5. Ant and termite nests have also been of interest for bioinspired architecture since through cooperative behavior they can build structures that are relatively stable and require few inputs (Again, unlike our own structures).
  6. And sociality in ants, the cohesion that exists between these “small brained” insects, has inspired electrical and computer engineers.
  7. And so on.
  • These are all examples of inspiration points from just an ant.
  • By this point it was my hope that students understand the possibilities that exist. I gave them some tips on how they can become “bioinspired”.

Avenues to becoming BioInspired (as a student in CIV)

1. Delve into biomimicry and bioinspiration basics

Students were asked watch two videos before the next BioCreativity meeting.

  1. Dayna Baumeister from Biomimicry3.8 at 2011 Bioneers conference  (her talk starts at 4:50min)
  2. Robert J. Full from UC Berkeley – TED talk entitled Engineering and Evolution

2. Delve into biomimicry and bioinspiration history

Students are encouraged to review some “famous” examples of bioinspired design.

Some general articles that introduce the topic:

The incredible science behind how nature solves every engineering problem. Business Insider. Jennifer Welsh. March 14, 2013.

Non-insect Top 10 (These are the most famous examples, I do not agree that all of these are in fact bioinspired or have been successful*):

  1. Cockleburs -> Velcro
  2. Lotus leaf -> Self-cleaning materials
  3. Gecko -> Gecko tape
  4. Whale fins -> Turbine blades
  5. Box Fish / Bone -> Bionic car
  6. Shark skin -> Friction reducing swim suits*
  7. Kingfisher beak -> Bullet train
  8. Ecosystems -> Industrial symbiosis
  9. Coral -> Calera cement*
  10. Forest floor / Ecosystem functioning -> Flooring tiles

Insect Top 10: I will cover all of these examples in detail in this blog.

  1. Morpho butterfly structural color
  2. Namib beetle water collecting
  3. Cockroach walking/running
  4. Insect flight
  5. Termite mound passive cooling
  6. Bee swarming
  7. Collembola skin
  8. Mosquito inspired microneedle
  9. Insect foot adaptations for adhesion
  10. Cockroach campaniform sensilla for sensing

Change your surroundings and go outside into nature

Here are some resources for when you go out into nature:

  1. Secrets of Watching Wildlife
  2. Get to know nature by keeping a journal

Go inside to view nature

Change your perspective

  • Look at things from different, less familiar angles. Look at a whole tree (Why is a tree that shape?), go closer (Why is the bark textured like that?), go even closer (Why does moss grow in those crevices).
  • Sketch or take pictures
  • Bring your friends – talk about what you are seeing.
Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch of a bird in flight. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of a bird in flight.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci

See what others are doing

  1. http://zqjournal.org/
  2. http://bouncingideas.wordpress.com/
  3. http://bioinspiredink.blogspot.com/
  4. http://ciber.berkeley.edu/
  5. http://wyss.harvard.edu/
  6. http://templebiomimetics.wordpress.com/category/bioinspiration/
  7. http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/labs/trimmer/
  8. http://www.biokon.net/index.shtml.de
  9. http://swedishbiomimetics.com/
  10. http://www.fastcompany.com/biomimicry
  11. http://inhabitat.com/index.php?s=biomimicry

Find inspiration on the web (look at great pictures of nature, read great stories about biology).

Go to the bookstore or library

BookCovers

Bioinspiraton and Biomimicry book covers from my eReader and at my lab.

  • Cats’ paws and catapults: mechanical worlds of nature and people. Steven Vogel. 2000
  • Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature. Janine M. Benyus. 2002
  • The gecko’s foot: bio-inspiration: engineering new materials from nature. Peter Forbes. 2006
  • Bulletproof feathers: How science uses nature’s secrets to design cutting-edge technology. Robert Allen. 2010
  • Biomimetics: Biologically inspired technologies. Yoseph Bar-Cohen. 2005
  • Biomimicry in architecture. Michael Pawlyn. 2011
  • Biomimetics in Architecture: Architecture of Life and Buildings. Petra Gruber. 2010
  • Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature. Janine M. Benyus. 2002
  • The smart swarm: How to work efficiently, communicate effectively, and make better decisions using the secrets of flocks, schools, and colonies. Peter Miller. 2010
  • Learning from the octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease. Rafe Sagarin. 2012
  • Darwin’s devices: What evolving robots can teach us about the history of life and the future of technology. John Long. 2012.
  • How to catch a robot rat: When biology inspires innovation. Agnes Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer. 2010.
  • Etc.

Use Social media

For example Twitter. I suggest you follow these folks because they often tweet links to interesting bioinspiration or biomimicry (and thus biocreativity) topics.

And then I sent the students off into the world, to get inspired. Actually, I explained a little bit more about the project we want them to do, but I will leave those details until the next blog post about BioCreativity.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(1)  This research by Burgon, et al. (under review) measured the creativity of first- and fourth-year engineering students using two nationally-normed creativity assessment instruments. I will blog more about this work when it has been published.

(2) More information about the Creativity, Innovation and Vision courses:

Two videos that introduce the topics discussed in the courses can be seen here:

  1. Part 1: http://youtu.be/6Csl7VPaG1k
  2. Part 2: http://youtu.be/c4BIa1RtpnI

And here is a pdf of  the First Day Course Pack.


Advertisements