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Engineering, Naturally

At ProjectEngin, some of our most exciting curriculum work centers around creating Engineering Design challenges that look to Nature for inspiration.  Biomimicry provides a terrific platform for incorporating Engineering Design projects into Life Science, Environmental Science, and Biology curriculum.

Engineering is all about problem-solving and finding innovative solutions to meet human needs and improve our lives. Good engineering demands an understanding of systems impacts, trade-offs and unintended consequences. Nature inherently operates on those principles, taking a long-term, sustainable approach to optimization. And nature has been successful for 3.8 billion years. There is clearly much we can learn by modeling our approach to design on Nature’s processes. As Janine Benyus, a champion of biomimicry, says, “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”


All of our curricular projects are centered on the Engineering Design Process. The way structures, processes, and systems in Nature are engineered follows the same process mapped out in the NGSS and other standards. Different parameters and a longer timeframe exist in the natural world. The table below compares Nature’s approach to the process we have employed to create the modern industrial world in less than 300 years. Engineering Design ProcessNature’s ApproachHuman ApproachDefine the  ProblemSustain lifeMake life “better”

Identify Criteria

Non-toxic, low temperature, recyclable, renewableBigger, stronger, cheaper, safer, appeal to target audienceDetermine ConstraintsOnly locally available resourcesLeast expensive resources, limited timeTesting and ModificationSlowly over time, prolonged use, extensive populationRapid, often limited scenarios, small pilot samples

OptimizationSustain life with least negative impacts; positive impacts outweigh negative consequencesBigger, better, faster, more profitable; often maximize not optimize

Clearly, as we face the challenges of limited resources, increasing population, and relatively rapid changes in our environment, there is much that we can learn by studying the structures, processes, and systems that Nature has engineered.

In terms of the curricular projects we design we think of biomimicry in terms of increasing levels of complexity that fit well into increasing grade level skills and progressions. Our focus at lower grades levels is on structures and patterns. We then move on to processes such as photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and heat transfer. For students who are older, modeling based on natural ecosystems provides a comprehensive approach to systems thinking and renewable design.

Here is a sample of some of ProjectEngin’s Engineering Design projects that are inspired by Nature.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: This challenge asks students to design camouflage for a nature photographer. Students explore patterns and designs in nature while learning about adaptation and natural selection. The final prototype is a T-shirt for designed to hide the photographer in a specific environment.

Get a Grip: This project tackles the challenges of adhesives and other joining technologies. Students look at the benefits of using

shape and form to join objects (think burr-inspired Velcro and wall-climbing geckos) instead of using chemicals and high-temperature bonding techniques like soldering and welding. They are challenged to mimic Nature to design their own innovative “adhesive”.

Have a House: Nature has engineered housing to meet the needs of all creatures in a wide range of climates and conditions. Students explore the ways

that structures and processes that support thermal transfer are integral parts of natural engineering. Termite mounds, penguin feathers, and camels all provide inspiration for thermoregulation.

Complete the Circle: This project, designed for older students, focuses on the idea of cradle-to-cradle processing and manufacturing. It uses some of the resources about the circular economy developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  It looks at small ecosystems and biomes as the inspiration for local sourcing, efficient use, and upcycling and recycling. After analyzing the actual water, energy, and materials footprints of certain products, students are asked to emulate nature and develop a circular process to produce an object.

There are so many ideas you can use to bring a Nature-inspired focus to your Engineering and STEM projects. Here are some of our favorite resources:

Engineers have always worked to solve problems, but our future lies in our ability to solve those problems sustainably and with less negative impacts. Looking at how Nature has engineered for 3.8 billion years can inspire and empower the engineers in your classes.

 “Look deep into Nature and then you will understand everything better.”  

Albert Einstein


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