Ted Willard, National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) asked Sam Stier, The Center for Learning with Nature

PostedWednesday, February 17, 2016 at 3:43 PM

How do you envision teachings using the connections between the natural and designed world in the K-12 curriculum?
Hi Sam, I'm Ted Willard, and one of the members of the LinkEngineering advisory board. I saw that you are interested in the connections between the natural world and the designed world. I was wondering how you think K-12 teachers should take advantage of those connections in their work with students and how exploring those relationships can help students achieve the goals we have for them.
1 Answer
  • Posted Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 12:45 PM
    Hi Ted,
    Great question.
    The teachers we work with have found curricula with a thematic emphasis on the natural world can help students explore STEM subjects in uniquely effective and enjoyable ways. An option teachers should know about for how to approach the topic of engineering, for instance, is “innovation inspired by Nature.” Innovation inspired by Nature (called also “bio-inspiration,” “biomimetics” or “biomimicry”) is an approach to innovation in which engineers, architects, and designers apply concepts from Nature to generate breakthroughs in human technologies. The field is absolutely booming. A few examples: Boeing recently designed a new material for aircraft inspired by bone. It’s the lightest metal material ever made, almost as light as air, yet it’s also strong: wrapped in a single layer of the material, an egg dropped off a 25-foot building wouldn’t break. Researchers at the University of Illinois, inspired by the biodegradability of biological materials, have now invented electronics that completely dissolve in water. Plywood free of carcinogenic formaldehyde is available for the first time from home building stores, thanks to new adhesives inspired by rock-clinging mussels off the coast of Oregon. Meanwhile, just this past November, medical researchers in England reversed childhood leukemia in a one-year old baby for the first time with treatments inspired by how bacteria invade plants. And engineers in Belgium, studying fireflies, recently improved the efficiency of LED lights by a whopping 55% (improvements of just 1-3% are enough for engineers to pop champagne corks). 
    The list of stunning innovations inspired by Nature goes on and on, as engineers increasingly learn to invent new things and improve existing technologies by looking to the natural world around us, a world that itself has been creatively designed and refined over some four billion years. These technological developments are both fascinating and hopeful, and for teachers, a great context with which to explore the subject of engineering with young people, set to inherit the world. What will the next generation build? What will their engineering goals be? Where will they find their creative ideas? This approach involves all the observational, creative, and analytical skills engineers need to be successful, while being fully hands-on and experiential. Teachers can have students design and build next generation solar cells based on the structure and function of leaves, economize household products based on principles gleaned from how bones grow (the basis of popular professional CAD software), explore manufacturing by making cement using commercialized chemical processes inspired by coral reefs (using car exhaust for raw material), do comparative testing of cutting-edge software code inspired by how ants forage, have students explore fundamental concepts like mechanical force by examining trees in the schoolyard (as they’ve never seen them before), and have students take on their own engineering projects, applying their newfound skills of seeing the natural world as an inspiration for technological innovation to projects students find personally meaningful. The possibilities for instructive and really neat activities are endless.
    Our pilot tests suggest students are not only able to meet performance expectations and apply the standards-based engineering and design concepts they learn to their own projects, but they simultaneously experience growth in STEM interest, socially-oriented career aspirations, and appreciation for the health of the environment as an economic prerequisite. After taking a course we designed called Engineering Inspired by Nature, for example, 3x more students expressed an interest in engineering than the U.S. average. For females, an underrepresented group in engineering fields, that number rose to 5x the national average. Also, 80% of the students expressed greater interest in sustainability after the course, saying things like, “This was a fantastic course. I learned a lot and am now really inspired to follow along this path. The final project gave me a new goal in life.” (Mandy, 16) and, “I thought that the course opened new doors for me into the future and for my generation. It taught me to be more clearer in how I see the things around me now. It influenced me to be more creative and careful in our world.” (Nick, 18). 
    How often do students speak about STEM subjects with such passion and thoughtfulness? Teachers find this approach to the subject of engineering fascinating and rewarding as well. Educators who are using Nature-oriented approaches to teaching engineering and other STEM topics are multiplying quickly: we’ve seen an 8-fold increase in the number of schools using this type of curricula in just the last 6 months. Here’s a few things teachers say about the approach: 
    “The course was a wonderful way of culminating the year of information about the environment with hopeful ideas for our future, engaging conversations and optimistic solutions. The students are able to apply their understanding of math, physics, biology, chemistry, environmental science into a new field of engineering and feel successful and engaged in the process. It was a wonderful way to respond to the overwhelming amount of concern about our changing environment and gives students a problem solving approach to creating new processes. It is also a curriculum that allows each student to focus on something that they are passionate about, research and create something new and then communicate that to their community.”
    “I really like the sequence of the lessons and how they walk students through the design process in detail ending with the culminating project. This curriculum ticks so many boxes for me. Critical thinking skills, project based learning, engineering design, creativity, interdisciplinary,  STEM/STEAM, environmental sustainability, prototyping, etc. This curriculum is a perfect example of 21st century education.”
    “I could not have spent my time any better than this. In an age where we have the Next Generation Science Standards directing us to think about teaching science differently and when we have industries saying we need students who have learned differently, this curriculum and the PD provided tools for addressing both of those forces.”
    I would highly encourage STEM educators to consider Nature-oriented approaches in their teaching practice, as being excellent avenues for helping students achieve academic and other developmental goals. And because Nature-inspired innovation is increasingly taught at post-secondary educational institutions, this approach in K-12 has the additional benefit of furthering college readiness. Moreover, because economic projections predict Nature-inspired innovation to be a significant source of future jobs, there are enhanced potential employment benefits down the line, too. These are the jobs of the future, but they’re also the basis of a future worth inventing. 
    And let’s not forget the goals teachers should have for themselves in choosing educational approaches! Because in order to be effective over the long term, the practice of teaching has to nourish the minds of teachers as much as it does their students. I believe teachers using Nature-based approaches for the subject of engineering – and their lucky students – will never get bored!
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