Lesson PlansBack to lesson plans archive September 25, 2019
Lesson plan: How mimicking nature inspires new inventions
Photo credit: Festo
When you think of nature and the 3.8 billion year-long process of evolution, do robots come to mind? How about robots designed to have a flea’s powerful legs? Or Japanese bullet trains inspired by the Kingfisher?
In this NewsHour lesson, students will learn about biomimicry — an innovative method in which nature inspires new inventions to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. Students will design their own invention using biomimicry to address an issue in their school, home or community.
Biology, Engineering, Science, Environmental Science
Three 50-minute classes
What is “invention education”?
“Students today face an unprecedented pace of change – from new technology to a transformed workplace to daunting challenges in the US and globally. How do we ‘future-proof’ our kids and our economy, and create the resilience needed to meet these challenges? — Invention education.” (InventionEducation.org)
The invention process, the backbone of invention education, encourages students to identify a real problem on a local or global level, brainstorm solutions and build an invention with a team of peers.
Keep in mind that young people are natural inventors. Let your students know they have the potential to make real change in the world.
How does biomimicry help inventors solve human problems through nature-based solutions?
Let students know that their main goal for this lesson will be to identify a problem that could be solved through an invention. As the teacher, you will provide support, guidance and answer students’ questions as they design and build their inventions.
The goal is to utilize biomimicry as the foundation to create a new or an improved inventive device to solve a problem in a student’s school, home or community.
The actual product generated should include a well-designed drawing or prototype using only recycled, reused and repurposed materials (in other words, please don’t spend any money!). Lastly, students will present their designs on the final day in front of their peers and key stakeholders.
Watch the PBS NewsHour’s How cutting-edge engineering borrows nature’s innovations and answer the questions below:
- What are bio-bots and could they be useful in society?
- What are examples of current accelerating trends in science from this segment? Can you think of others?
- Do you think biomimicry could help solve important problems? What are some additional examples of biomimicry (a short internet search will lead students to others)?
What is the invention process?
For a device to go from an idea to a finished product, it must go through the design or invention process. Throughout history, someone — likely a team of people — invented nearly all of the things we use on a daily basis: smartphones, cars, clothing, video games–and yes, robotic insects! All of these products were part of the invention process.
PBS Newshour Extra’s invention ed lesson series uses a modified definition of the “invention process” based on Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams’ definition:
- Concept phase: Identify a problem, conduct research and brainstorm solutions.
- Design phase: Create a plan, calculate costs, select the best solution and determine necessary resources.
- Build phase: Sketch, model or build a prototype. For the invention lesson here, a sketch of the invention is more than fine!
- Review and redesign phase: Review the invention for strengths and weaknesses.
- Share phase: Present the invention to your class as well as to key stakeholders who may be interested in your invention. Did you know that there is no age minimum to apply for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?
Use this diagram via Lemelson Center’s Spark Lab as a guide:
You may want to use this handout from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which also reviews the invention process with students.
Check for understanding:
Think of an example of biomimicry from the NewsHour video and an invention that could be closely associated with it. Then outline the steps of the invention process using this Inventor’s Notebook from Spark Lab based on that invention. For more ideas, check out this article Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature.
Inventor’s notebook: Have students use an inventor’s notebook on a daily basis to keep track of their progress. Let students know you will checking their notebooks at the end of the project.
Using the invention process, the goal of this activity is for students to design their own invention using biomimicry and share it with the class and potential stakeholders.
1. Students will work with a partner or in groups of three for this project.
2. Identify a problem: Let students know that this step of the invention process can sometimes be a lot harder than it seems, and they should not rush through it. Here are the choices:
- Improve a service; like transportation in your community
- Support a sustainable environment initiative in your school or town
- Design a solution to make your home or community more secure
3. Once students have settled on a problem they plan to solve, they should research their topic using reliable sources that the teacher approves or recommend on an element from nature (plants, animals, weather, etc.) that they will use as a basis for their invention. . They should be sure they are clear on what the problem is and the natural structure and its function that will help them solve the problem.
For example, check out how this bionic arm was inspired by the trunk of an elephant. The system works in situations that require support from machines, according to the German company Festo. “That can include medical technology, rehabilitation and as an aid for the handicapped, as well as in agriculture, private homes and educational institutes.”
4. Sketch, draw or build a prototype as a group.
Students should think about the types of materials that will used to build the prototype and bring them to class, including reused, recycled and repurposed materials. You may ask teachers and staff at school for possible resource suppliers (paper, cardboard boxes, old pens and pencils, etc.)
Optional: Check on the availability of a 3D printer and use of tinkercad for 3D designs.
5. Test and redesign: As students test out their invention and work on their redesigns, be sure to remind them about the importance of communicating with each other, the teacher and if they need to, conducting more research. Ask them: What redesigns did they make so as to better catch the attention of stakeholders who might be interested in working with the students on their invention?
Students will display their prototype as a showcase or gallery of inventions and should include the following:
- The display should include a clear invention statement (what is the invention; how does it work; and what problem is it trying to solve in one sentence on a large piece of paper) as a way for students to concisely communicate a summary of their project from the start.
- Teams should also provide a summary of the invention (one to two paragraphs on a sheet of paper).
- Be prepared to discuss their invention and answer questions on the spot.
Invite other classes, school administrators and teachers and potential stakeholders from outside school (i.e. city council member, professor, advocacy group, etc.). This format allows students to learn from others in a more open format. During the showcase, students must be able to provide information on the following topics:
- Identify the problem
- Purpose of the invention
- Organism selected
- Structure used as inspiration
- Function that the structure provides for the organism in nature
- How the prototype emulates nature
- Materials used to build the prototype
- Benefits invention will bring
- How invention takes into account sustainability
- Role of empathy–how will invention improve people’s lives
- Lessons learned: Challenges and eureka moments
7. Share it! Don’t forget this last step of the invention process. Share photos of your invention using #PBSInvention via NewsHour Extra’s Twitter or enter your invention in one of the contests here or here. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or feedback.
- Have students verify on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website if their idea is a true original idea, and if it could be patented as such.
- Plan a follow up science fair, so that students can further engage in the project or find additional invention competitions/conferences.
- Gear up for the Biomimicry Institute’s Youth Design Challenge.
- Check out Lemelson-MIT’s Eurekafest to learn more on how to apply to be a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam!
Standards: HS NGSS Engineering
The project targets the following standards at the High School level.
HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
HS-ETS1-4. Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.
Antonio Gamboa is an educator and science department chair at Garey High School in Pomona, Calif. Antonio holds two Master’s degrees in Biology and Cell and Molecular Pathology. He challenges his students to create innovative science projects which have resulted in a patent-pending device and county and state science fair prizes. Antonio is an active California Instructional Leader, a former Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam mentor, a National Science Foundation Teacher, a Microsoft Inventor #MakesWhatsNext, a Society for Science and the Public Grant Recipient, and a collaborator on research university grants and various other organizations.
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