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Copying Nature’s Success: Teaching Students About Biomimetics

Sarah Bottorff
Technical Support Specialist, Live Materials

January 2016

Life on earth is made up of an ever-changing, incredibly complex network of interconnected and interdependent organisms. Some form of life has managed to sustain itself on earth for the past 3.85 billion years, through ice ages, tsunamis, volcanoes, and asteroids. This means that life has survived 3.85 billion years of trial and error, 3.85 billion years of testing, and 3.85 billion years of rigorous selection and extinction.

Biomimetics is an approach to design that involves the mimicry of the models, systems, and elements of the natural world to solve human problems. Behind the biomimetic approach is the idea that living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over time through natural selection. While not meant to replace human technique and innovation, biomimetics encourages designers and engineers to consider how problems, such as temperature regulation and resource renewal, are solved in natural systems. 


Over two weeks, students will assume roles in a hypothetical architecture firm. Students can be organized into cooperative project groups with defined roles (to be assigned by the instructor or student selected) for the duration of the project. They will address the following scenario:

Your firm provides designs for energy-efficient, low-impact permanent structures. Over the last few months, the firm has received several requests from around the world to design model homes that can be heated and cooled efficiently, and to showcase designs that incorporate biomimetics in their approach to architecture.

Working in groups of 2 to 3, you’ll research, design, and build a model home that incorporates at least 2 ideas inspired by the natural world. You’ll then test the heating and cooling capabilities of your model structure. After testing, you’ll evaluate your design as well as the designs of other groups. 


  • Building Materials (Cardboard, Newspaper, or File Folders)
  • Tile
  • Tile Cutters
  • Computers Enabled with CAD Software
  • Acetate
  • Transparency Film
  • Porcelain Lamps with Clamps (120 or 250 W)
  • Ring Stand
  • Thermometer or CBL Probe
  • Box Cutter and Scissors
  • Tape, Glue, Staples, Rulers, and Protractors

Material considerations

A variety of building materials can be purchased at a building supply store. Encourage students to use recycled or repurposed materials such as cardboard, newspaper, or file folders to build their model homes.

The standard for tile is 1 square foot. Measurement is best done using feet and inches rather than metric units. Tiles can be manipulated using tile cutters, which will allow students to build houses that are not square.

Computers enabled with CAD software may be useful in design. If your school has a drafting or engineering program, consult with that department about what resources may be available for you to use.

Acetate for the windows and oversized graph paper for the plans can be purchased at an office supply store as transparency film. The graph paper should be ruled in some fraction of an inch.

Student instructions

  1. Choose a location from the list of locations provided by your instructor as the site for your model home. The home must be suitable for human habitation.
  2. Design the home using 2 biomimetic principles. Your home design should specify:
  3. Physical structure
  4. Heating and/or cooling mechanisms
  5. Build a model of your home using materials provided by your instructor or recycled/repurposed materials.
  6. Test the heating and cooling properties of your model and present data as part of the critique of your design.


Projects can be assessed based on four criteria. From this list, choose what is most appropriate for your students’ skill and interest level.

  1. A visual representation with concise interpretation

    • Build a model in the context of the environment
    • Heating and cooling test results for the model
  2. A written explanation of the features used in the structure, the problems they solve, and the sources of inspiration for the features

    The explanation should include:

    • A description of the assigned location, including its climate, topography, ecology, and geology.
    • Problem definition: What obstacles does your location present with regard to building a structure suitable for human habitation?
    • What models from nature solve your problem? Are there any identifiable patterns that occur in strategies to solve this problem?
    • What types of organisms have solved this problem in your environment? Use this section to show a clear connection between a biological mechanism, process, pattern, or system, and the solution submitted. The solution must emulate the natural model(s).
  3. A brief presentation of the model for evaluation by class members
  4. An evaluation of the model homes presented (self and peer)

Related products


Benyus, J. M. (1997). Biomimicry (p. 1). New York: William Morrow.

Benyus, J. (2005, February). Janine Benyus: Biomimicry’s surprising lessons from nature’s engineers [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_shares_nature_s_designs

Benyus, J. (2009, July). Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in action [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_biomimicry_in_action

Bhushan, B. (2009). Biomimetics: lessons from nature—an overview. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences367 (1893), 1445–1486. Retrieved from http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/367/1893/1445

Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry Education Network (BEN). http://ben.biomimicry.net/

Pawlyn, M. (2010, November). Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pawlyn_using_nature_s_genius_in_architecture

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