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 ( [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.

Dinoponera australis. Photograph by Alex Wild.

  • 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.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of a bird in flight.

See what others are doing


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

Go to the bookstore or library


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:
  2. Part 2:

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

The many feathers in all my caps.

The many feathers in all my caps.

Last week I was reminded multiple times of my love of hats. I don’t wear them too often myself, due to the large cranium I prefer not to boast about. But I do like to try on hats, and I wonder why we do not wear them more often.

The first reminder occurred when Dutch Queen Beatrix announced last week that she will abdicate the throne in April. I immediately felt a loss; no more awesome hats (“Hoedjes van de Koningin”). The new King Willem-Alexander will probably not wear something as awesome as this:

Den Haag, 18 september 2012: de Koningin leest in de Ridderzaal de Troonrede voor © ANP

Queen Beatrix. Den Haag, 18 september 2012:© ANP.
Check out all those feathers in her hat.

But I wasn’t sad too long, since I am really a “Republikein” at heart.  And apparently I have, figuratively, quite an extensive hat collection myself – even some with fancy feathers in them. Let me explain.

The second reminder of my love of hats happened  during the #Venn13 session at the ScienceOnline conference I attended this week. The session was organized/moderated by Ed Yong (@edyong209) and Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics). The whole session is storified here.

Between the two of them Ed and Jonathan wear many hats: scientist, journalist, open-access promoter, administrator, writer, teacher, public information officer, etc. They challenged the attendees of the session to think about the many hats they themselves they wear. I may not don as many hats as Jonathan, even though we are both at a public university (JE at UC Davis, myself at University of Illinois), but I can show you of a couple of stylish hats I have accumulated for myself: entomologist/researcher/advisor, instructor/instructional designer, Entomological Society mover-and-shaker.  And all this while my official title is “Research Scientist”.

In recent years I have also become a promoter of Bioinspiration (or Biomimicry) within the Department of Entomology and the School of Integrative Biology, but also beyond my home department into the College of Engineering and the College of Education. This means that my hats have collected quite a bit of plumage. The point is probably best made by leaving the hat-analogy for a little while and to make the point by describing three completely different scientific conferences I have attended in the past six months.

Biomimicry Europe Innovation and Finance Summit (Zurich, Switzerland, August 2012)

In August 2012 I attended a summit in Zurich, Switzerland, that was organized by the Foundation For Global Sustainability and SwissCleanTech. These two entities brought together people from all over Europe who were interested in the topic of Biomimicry. The summit featured workshop sessions led by Dayna Baumeister who is one of the founders of Biomimicry 3.8. I have been interested in the Biomimicry Institute for quite a few years now and it was a pleasure to meet Dayna and talk to her.


Participants of the Biomimicry Workshop socializing while enjoying the view of Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

The conference was mainly about how to innovate with biomimicry principles, and what tools are available to us to accomplish this. The speakers included scientists I greatly admire such as: Thomas Speck and André Studart. I hope to blog about their work soon.  The workshop/conference was special because I came in contact with not only  biologists and engineers who feel strongly about bioinspiration, but also with the people who are working on a more sustainable future; policy makers and business leaders, for the good of the environment but also because of the company’s bottom line. It was great to feel that my input as a researcher and instructor was appreciated and I myself learned a lot from people I rarely come in contact with.


During the Biomimicry Conference we went on tours through the Zurich Zoo. One night we had dinner in the Zoo’s Masoala Rainforest exhibit.
Can you pick out the business men?
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

As someone who was promoting insects as inspiration for innovation I wore my “researcher in entomology” and “instructor” hats at this conference, but I also tried to imagine walking in the shoes of an engineer, a sustainability innovator, a biomimicry practicioner, and a business person. I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the entomologist’s cap, and learned to appreciate this old hat even more as I convinced others that nature in general, and insect in particular, need more study for the good of our own society. The future focus of this blog.

Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (Knoxville, TN, November 2012)

I have been a member of the premier insect-society (ha!), the Entomological Society of America (ESA), for almost 20 years. First as a grad student, then as a post-doc, and now as a research scientist (=faculty-let).  Through the years I have served at different levels of leadership, for instance as the President of the Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology section during a major ESA reorganization.  Currently I am on the Program Committee, which is a 3 year term. At the Annual Meeting in Knoxville this past year it was my task to organize the large student competition – which means keeping hundreds of presenting-students and judging-judges happy and on time. Luckily I get to do this with a co-chair, my good friend Luis Canas from Ohio State University. Luis and I were asked to be Program co-chairs because the current ESA President, Rob Wiedenmann (my former PhD advisor) wants to put forth an international face. So here we are, Luis from El Salvador, myself from the Netherlands, representing the rest of the world as the face of a very, very American scientific society.

At the meeting in Knoxville I gave a talk about BioInspiration as part of a bitter-sweet symposium. The symposium was in memory of my graduate (MS) advisor Dr. Nancy Beckage who passed away earlier in 2012. Dr. Beckage was a professor of Entomology, Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the University of California at Riverside. She studied the physiological responses of insects to immune challenges such as pathogens and parasitoids. She did important research and was a great writer. Her review articles are wonderful introductions to immunology and parasitology. In fact, she once considered a career in science journalism.


My friend Nancy Beckage at my wedding in 1995. She looks so incredibly happy here, probably because she received such great pleasure from the happiness of others.
I miss her.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

Nancy was a mentor, a friend, and a role-model for me. But also a cautionary tale. I feel that Nancy did not get the support that she needed at important times in her life, in large part because she would never ever ask for help as she was a very private person. Mental illness in academia is not uncommon, but for women getting support is often rather difficult, especially for a woman in a discipline/department where women are underrepresented. Again, this is a topic for a blog post I hope to come back to in the future.

During my talk at ESA I made the case that Nancy had a great love for insects. She also appreciated that insect parasitoids can teach a lot about animal physiology.

This type of thinking was passed on to me and now I have come to appreciate the diversity of insects immensely. Insects have adapted to almost all of earth’s habitats, except maybe the open ocean. Insects have a lot to teach us as long as we open ourselves to creative thinking and let ourselves be inspired to innovate.

Participating in this symposium was difficult, there were lots of tears and regrets, but also great camaraderie among those who Nancy influenced during her life.  She inspired me. She still influences my research, my teaching, and most importantly, she influences my interactions with those around me since she taught me that nothing is more important than meaningful personal relationships.

So what hats was I wearing at the ESA Annual Meeting? Definitely the “Entomology researcher” hat (my grad student Gwyn Puckett presented her work at ESA), but also the “Service” hat with the fancy feathers bestowed to a promoter of curiosity, respect, generosity, acceptance, compassion in entomology and academia – because if we do not adhere to these principles then there will be devastating consequences to our (or our colleagues) personal lives, but also to science research and understanding.

Again, I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the hat of an “Entomologist”, the one promoting insects as inspiration for learning about science and for  innovation. At this ESA meeting the “Service” hat with all its feathers (=responsibilities) weighed heavy on me. I had to try to put myself in the shoes of other ESA members, many of whom are in a field far outside of insect physiology or bioinspiration, in the shoes of students, in the shoes of ESA staff and leadership, in the shoes of those women who came before me and who’s legacy I proudly carry on my shoulders.

(NB: at this meeting I had to pleasure to meet many of my “new” online ento friends. Two of them: @BioInFocus and @GeekInQuestion even recorded a Breaking Bio Episode from there: Episode 10)

Science Online 2013 (Raleigh, NC, January 2013)

And now for my third meeting in 6 months. For the second year in a row I attended the Science Online meeting in Raleigh, NC. I cannot say enough about this un-conference, the organizers, the attendees. It is absolutely my favorite work-related event of the year. For a taste of what the conference is like just visit this link and start clicking through all the awesomeness.

It was at this conference that I was first reminded of all the hats I wear, and that each hat is adorned with many feathers. The hats that brought with me to Raleigh is the science instructor hat. Next to my bread&butter Insect Physiology graduate course I teach a few courses in the Online Master of Science in Teaching of Biological Science Program at the University of Illinois (a team effort with @sciencegoddess). In all the courses that I teach for this program insects are heavily featured, because there so many aspects of their biology are interesting and important. The students in the courses are themselves high-school teachers and they are very eager to learn the latest about biology and how to teach it. The Science Online conference put me in contact with journalists and writers who help me explain the content of my courses – which is then passed on to the high-school students. In addition, I met high school teachers who are very active online and serve as teachers for me too (@lalsox, @2footgiraffe, @paleoromano etc.). All three use social media in their science courses, something I am trying to encourage my students to do too.


Entomologists/Naturalists, Wilson and Lowman,who have figured out that instead of wearing many hats it is just better to wear vests with lots of pockets that can hold all your tricks and keep them accessible
E.O. Wilson’s Global Town Hall moderated by NRC Director Meg Lowman.
Raleigh, NC, December 2012 (I ‘attended’ this event remotely)
Photo by Karen Swain, NCMNS

At ScienceOnline I did not really unpack my “Entomology/researcher” hat (except during Friday dinner). But I did juggle both my “Instructor” hat and my “Service/Outreach” hat. It was at first a little uncomfortable since it put me, as a communicator, front and center, and not my cool study animals. As was the case last year, the conference did force me to imagine myself in the shoes of journalists, writers and bloggers who are trying to work with scientists and/or the public to make science accessible to many different types of people.

I have to thank all the attendees at all the conferences covered here for inspiring me, for giving me the confidence to wear all my hats and to try out new things so I can add more feathers to my caps.

But now that I see all these ornate hats all lined up in front of me I wonder if it would be wise to invest in a Collecting Vest. This garment is one of those accessories worn by only the most serious of entomologists. Surely investing in a vest like the one E.O. Wilson often wears can help me do my job even better. All my research, teaching, and outreach tricks would be easily accessible, and the vest, together with a “pooter“, would make me look professional in whatever setting I find myself. Then again, there is a thin line between looking professional and looking goofy.  It might also be wise to invest time in revising my job description.

A special thanks to the Scio13 attendees for helping me celebrate Queen Beatrix’ birthday (January 31st)…which happens to be my birthday too (and I covet her hats).

Thanks to all of you I have renewed faith in my abilities…look… I finished my first real blog post 😉 (A blog post which is not really about the topic that will be the focus of this blog…but oh well, baby steps).