The Elephant in the Classroom: Nature-Inspired STEM Approaches Go Global

At this very moment, I am at a workshop with educators from the United States and all over Europe, the theme of which is Nature-inspired approaches to teaching STEM. It’s gratifying: some 14 years ago, when I first started teaching educators about this pedagogical approach, Nature-inspired STEM in schools didn’t even exist. Today, hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers in schools all over the world wouldn’t think of teaching STEM any other way.

But for some of you STEM educators out there, I may have just said something a little surprising. Nature? What does the natural world have to do with teaching STEM? The short answer is: everything.

You may not know it, but STEM professionals today – chemists, biomedical engineers, video game designers, architects – regularly look to the natural world in their daily jobs. The practice even has a name: “biologically inspired innovation” (a.k.a. bioinspiration or biomimicry). The idea is pretty simple: the natural world is already chock full of effective, time-tested strategies for addressing a litany of challenges now facing humans, including how to clean water, fight microbes, reverse CO2 emissions, achieve energy efficiency, design high performance materials, and so on. It just makes sense to look to Nature for fresh technological ideas rather than reinvent the wheel.

Most people don’t know it, but bio-inspired innovation has played an instrumental role in the development of airplanes, computers, and the cell phone in your pocket, and more recently, in breakthroughs like machine learning and immunotherapy. In one bio-inspired lab, high school students make cement literally out of car exhaust, using a recently commercialized carbon negative manufacturing process inspired by coral reefs. Bio-inspired education not only brings cutting-edge technologies into your classroom, but also can help you explore vital sustainability topics with your students in ways that leave students hopeful and full of ambition.

“I thought that the course opened new doors for me into the future and for my generation,” said one high school senior. Primary students find Nature-inspired innovation just as engaging: “I liked this unit because there were some very cool things and it was interesting,” said one 5th grader. “I also think that it is cool that nature inspired so many things. It was fun and exciting the whole time.” Bio-inspired approaches to STEM learning, crucially, can also foster young peoples’ connection with Nature, at a time when young people spend less and less time outside, and may form that vital bond with the living world only through what they learn and experience at school.

As importantly, educators find bio-inspired approaches to teaching STEM subjects as fascinating and delightful as their students. “I feel that this class has offered me a mind-blowing professional development experience!” one teacher wrote after attending a training on using bio-inspiration to teach STEM. “A tsunami inside me is bursting to share all that I learned in our class with my students!” This kind of response from teachers is the norm. Who can contain themselves when they learn that sharks have inspired new ways to fight microbes without creating antibiotic resistance, or that humpback whales have inspired completely silent computer fans?

Let me give you a few more examples. Researchers from Caltech, after researching schools of fish, carefully arranged wind turbines in groups, improving their energy output by an astonishing 10 times. Film directors like Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) craft epic battle scenes using CGI software inspired by the swarming behavior of bees. Material scientists at the University of Illinois recently developed electronics that completely biodegrade, a potential game changer to the growing problem of e-waste. And Stanford engineers designed a material enabling people to literally scale the sides of glass skyscrapers, like Spiderman; the stunning breakthrough came from studying geckos.

In fact, bio-inspired approaches to technological innovation are so common in the practices of STEM professionals today, and have such a good track record, that a throng of colleges and universities now teach their STEM students using this method. This list includes, for instance, Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering; Georgia Tech’s Center for Bio-Inspired Design; MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds and Machines; Arizona State University’s Center for Bio-Inspired Fuels; Montana State’s Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials; Cambridge University’s Bio-Inspired Robotics Lab; and on it goes. Bio-inspiration is how today’s STEM college students are being prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. Primary and secondary school teachers who have adopted the approach are preparing their students for college and career.

Time to get back to the workshop! The teachers and I are taking a field trip to a carpet factory that runs on 100% renewable energy. This company’s fully recycled carpet, made out of other companies’ carpet waste otherwise destined for the landfill, is today one of the best-selling carpet tiles in the world. The company’s breakthrough came in the 1990s, when instead of trying to design its carpet tiles to look all alike, it redesigned the tiles’ patterns to be more random, just like the carpet of leaves on a forest floor that inspired the company’s landmark idea. You’ve walked over these carpets yourself at some point, in airports, offices, even schools, and probably never even realized the incredible story of innovation inspired by Nature they are part of. Bio-inspired technologies and designs are everywhere today – in the headlines, in the cell phone in your pocket, and in your students’ future. Maybe it’s time they become part of how you teach STEM?

Samuel Cord Stier is Executive Director of the Center for Learning with Nature, a non-profit organization providing STEM curricula and teacher training, and a faculty member at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he teaches science and sustainable design.  His book Engineering Education for the Next Generation: A Nature-Inspired Approach (Norton, 2020) will be released March 17th.

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