Engineering Inspired by Nature

This week in the News: March 8, 2009

Spider silk design is at least 140 million years old.Two brothers recently discovered what is believed to be the oldest preserved spider web. They found the web encased in amber resin on a beach in southeastern England. From evidence gathered so far, they think that the surrounding pine trees caught fire, oozed out their thick sap, and covered the web where it hung. Later, the resin hardened and the spider silk became fossilized. Oxford University scientists have been busy analyzing the find, and they estimate that the web was built about 140 million years ago.

This discovery proves that web-weaving spiders, one of nature's most amazing engineers, have lived and thrived for a very long time. Not only are their webs extraordinary constructions, but this naturally made protein fiber is one of the strongest materials on Earth. In fact, the tensile strength of spider silk is superior to human-made high-grade steel.

Perhaps it is little wonder that nature's designs tend to be better than human designs. After all, nature has spent millions of years in research and development for its proven technologies, while modern humans have only been at it for a few thousand years. Today, humans are taking fresh new look at how nature does things. Through a growing practice called "biomimicry," people are developing innovations inspired by nature.

In this lesson, you will explore a variety of engineering fields to get a better idea of what different types of engineers do and what kinds of problems they solve. Then, you will take a closer look at biomimicry and think about ways that human designs could benefit from nature-inspired improvements.

Discover Engineering

Start your exploration at Discover Engineering, which will introduce you to what engineering is about and give you an overview of its career diversity.

Can you picture yourself as an engineer?Click to the WhatÂ’s Engineering section to get a better understanding of what engineers actually do. As you will discover, engineering is different from science. As you browse through the Career Facts, you will learn about the key characteristics most engineering careers share.

Read the introduction in Career Profiles, and then select a career from the side menu to begin exploring the breadth of this job title. Careers include Aerospace Engineering, Audio Engineering, Ceramics and Materials Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, and many more. As you review these career overviews, make a list of career categories that sound the most interesting to you. What exactly do you like about the ones you picked?

Now move on to the Video Activities section. Watch each video showing examples of Engineers for a Sustainable World, Computer Designers, and The Amazing Solar Decathlon. Make sure you have headphones or speakers turned on to listen during the videos; there is no closed captioning. To move from one Video Activity to the next, you will need to click on the Video Activities tab to close and then re-open the section to pick the next one from the list. As you watch each video, think about how the teams approached each problem to solve. For each project, make a list of factors that the team had to consider.

To see even more problem-solvers at work, spend some time with the Design Squad at PBS. Watch the Videos to see how the teams approached each episode's challenge.

If possible, you may also want to play Power Up—The Game to get the engineer part of your brain really pumping. However, your teacher or technology administrator will need to download the game onto the school's computer and set it up so you can play online. This is a free online multiplayer game where you will meet expert engineer characters and explore the ways these engineers design and build systems to produce energy. Taking on the role of engineers, you will actively work with other players to create solutions.

Biomimicry is nature-inspired innovation.Nature's Way

Now that you have a good idea of how humans solve problems, visit the Biomimicry Institute to review some Case Studies about how nature's problem solving can teach humans some new tricks. Hover over each image on the right to read about each featured case. For example, read how the study of kingfishers can help improve transportation, and how humpback whales can teach us how to improve wind power technologies. You can also download and print the PDF for ideas when you complete your newspaper activity.

Continue your investigation of biomimicry at the institute's interactive site, where you can Ask Nature how it goes about solving problems. Read the overview that explains, What is Biomimicry? If you have time, watch and listen to the 24-minute video. The speaker is Janine Benyus, who wrote the first book on Biomimicry in 1997 and founded the Biomimicry Institute.

Find more case studies of nature-inspiring innovation by browsing the Biomimicry Taxonomy. Read What is the biomimicry taxonomy? As this explanation clarifies, finding solutions to problems sometimes requires thinking about them from a different angle. The Site Tutorial can help you use the search features on the site. Make sure to either browse through the Biomimicry Taxonomy or do a specific search to get an idea of how information is categorized and presented. The blue mussel, for example, produces sticky proteins that serve as glue to help it adhere to wet surfaces. For each entry you browse to, read the overview, the excerpt (which may include a video), learn more about the Inspiring Organism, and review the Bioinspired Products and Application Ideas. Get familiar with the taxonomy and search tools for later use.

Newspaper Activities

Use The Sacramento Bee to find a news article, feature story, or photograph that provides information about an engineered design. The design should relate to one of the career fields you found interesting at the Discover Engineering website. Think about how this design could be improved with lessons from nature. Review the biomimicry case studies to help you think creatively about how to view the design challenge from different angles. Use the Biomimicry Taxonomy to look for ideas. You may think of other possibilities on your own. You will not build and test your design, so whether your design actually works is less important than your creativity and finding inspiration in nature. Once you have come up with one good idea, take your idea to the drawing board. Sketch out how the human-made design works now, and then draw a second illustration showing how the design could be improved by an example in nature. Ask your teacher about what level of detail he or she wants you to research and include. Present your nature-inspired innovation to classmates for discussion.

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